Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Naoto Kumazawa, 2009)

otonariSometimes when you live in the city it’s difficult to build meaningful connections with other people. You might find yourself a little lost, caught between the rat race and what it was that brought you to the city in the first place, but if you just close your eyes and listen, you can hear that you’re not alone. Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Oto-na-ri) is the story of two such people who build up a strange connection even though they’ve never really met.

Satoshi (Junichi Okada) and Nanao (Kumiko Aso) are next door neighbours in a small apartment block where the walls are paper thin. They’re both vaguely aware that a person of the opposite sex and around the same age lives next door, but they don’t know each other – in fact, they wouldn’t even recognise each other if they passed in the street. Still, they’re each aware of the other person through their particular soundscapes – Nanao hears Satoshi’s keys jangling on his belt as he leaves each morning and his rice cooker beeping in the evening, where as he thinks of Nanao as the humming girl and enjoys getting a free French lesson as he hears her language tapes through the wall.

Both are beginning to get frustrated with their lives in the city. Satoshi is a professional photographer doing fashion shoots but his real passion is landscape photography. He’s planning to go to Canada for a photo project but keeps getting held back as he only got into the fashion stuff because his childhood friend became a model and the two have now become entirely dependent on each other to keep working. When the friend, Shingo, finds out about Satoshi’s Canada plans, he goes missing causing his pregnant girlfriend Akane to come crashing into Satoshi’s life for a while.

Likewise Nanao is a lonely woman in her early thirties who works in a florist’s shop and plans to go to France to study flower arrangement after she’s passed the highest rank of exams. The guy at the local combini she often shops at seems to have developed a crush on her and Nanao isn’t really sure what to do with that but uses all of her time pursuing her dream of becoming a top florist.

Satoshi and Nanao are both feeling adrift, as if their lives are passing them by and it’s getting too late to not be getting anywhere. Just hearing the familiar sounds coming through the wall provides a comforting presence to not feel so alone. Though they don’t know each other, each has perhaps built up an image in their minds of the other person based on the sounds they create – keys, coffee, cooking vs French, classical music and humming an all too familiar song. Feeling the other person’s presence becomes reassuring and an absence of a familiar sound at its expected hour is unexpectedly disconcerting even if you really have no right to expect it.

Though Nanao is annoyed by the noisy and unprecedented arrival of Akane (who is not a good match for the rather uptight Satoshi) and slightly confused by her friendly greeting from the adjacent balcony, she still continues to derive comfort from the gentle presence of her neighbour. After having undergone a cruel humiliation and in something of a crisis, Nanao breaks down inside her apartment. Hearing her distress, Satoshi places his hand on the wall as if in comfort but rather than going next door to see if everything’s OK, he begins to hum and then sing the song he’s heard Nanao humming all along and eventually she too comes to sit beside the wall singing the song back to him.

As implied in the film’s English title, Romantic Prelude, music, and more particularly the symphony of sound that makes up a city, is the film’s major motif. This is further brought out by the original Japanese title which is a perfectly composed sonata of its own – Oto-na-ri. “Otonari” is Japanese for neighbour but the syllables which make up the word also have their own distinct meanings in that “oto” on its own means “sound” but put together “otona” means adult and then “nari” can also mean “to become”. Satoshi and Nanao are engaged in a blind slow dance where they’re falling in love with a stranger based on nothing other than a feeling of connection coupled with bond created by their shared soundscape.

Less a romance than an urban character study, Romantic Prelude is that rare case of a genuinely intriguing love story in which you’re really not sure which way things are going to go. This could just be another story of a tragic missed connection where Nanao heads off to France and Satoshi to Canada and they never even meet or it could give the audience the satisfying true love ending that it almost certainly wants but could have made either direction work. In the end, the important thing is seeing the pair work through their own difficulties and sort things out for themselves in the absence of each other before they finally begin to live the lives they’ve been yearning to lead.


The Japanese release of Romantic Prelude contains English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s the song they both keep singing – Kaze wo Atsumete by Happy End

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: