Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hardness of Avocado (アボカドの固さ, Masaya Jo, 2019)

“Reality might be bitter, but at least your coffee is sweet” according to the “gloomy” voiceover performed by aspiring actor Mizuki Maehara in Masaya Jo’s The Hardness of Avocado (アボカドの固さ, Avocado no Katasa). In many ways a tale of quarter-life inertia and youthful denial, Jo’s indie drama finds its struggling hero looking for the sweet spot, trying to grab the avocado at the opportune moment between rock hard and squishy mess but floundering in world which seems both continually confusing and perhaps inherently unfair. 

At 24, Mizuki (Mizuki Maehara) is a jobbing actor living with his sister (Zuru Onodera) in a small apartment. He’s been in a committed relationship with Shimi (Asami Taga) for the last five years and is already thinking about moving in together, asking her to help him pick out a sofa-bed after their date to the movies where she fell asleep and he ended up meeting a fan who recognised him from a previous film. Shimi, however, seems irritated, eventually answering Mizuki’s well meaning question about what she’d most like to do right now with the answer “break up”. In a pattern which will be repeated, Mizuki reacts somewhat petulantly, walking off with a “fine then” only to end up regretting it later. Unable to accept that Shimi is really ready to move on, he decides to give her (and himself) one month before, he assumes, they’ll get back together having each grown as people during their time apart. 

This baseless optimism and mild sense of self-centred entitlement are perhaps the very things that Mizuki is supposed to be outgrowing even as he struggles to get over Shimi. Having dated for five years, Mizuki took his relationship for granted, assuming it was settled and destined to go on forever. Shimi’s declaration comes as a complete surprise, shocking in its abruptness though we can see that she seems irritated by him and that it may be more than a temporary bad mood. She tells him that she needs “freedom” and time to herself, but it seems equally likely that, from her point of view, the relationship has simply run its course. Looking through his mementos, Mizuki finds a 20th birthday card from Shimi that promised she’d always be around to encourage him, but relationships entered in adolescence rarely survive the demands of adulthood and she, it seems, is after something more while all Mizuki seems to want is more of the same. 

Moping about the city, he engages in borderline misogynistic banter with his friends, occasionally irritating even them in his resentment towards a nerdy guy who has finally got a girlfriend. He finds himself applying for a job in a convenience store to make ends meet between auditions seated next to a pair of students who roll their eyes, mocking him for his lack of success as a man in his mid-20s still part-timing just like them. Meanwhile, he develops an unwise fondness for a woman he meets on a shoot, chatting her up at the afterparty but saying the quiet part out loud as he confesses his plan to have a fling while fully believing he’ll be getting back together with Shimi when the month is up. Despite the fact she has also told him she has a boyfriend, he suddenly declares his love to her, once again petulantly put out by her irritation as she points out how inappropriate he’s been seeing as all he’s done is talk about Shimi.

Shimi’s mother (Kumi Hyodo) can’t understand why she’d break up with someone as “nice” as Mizuki, and Mizuki is indeed “nice” if obviously imperfect, an earnest sort of man working hard to achieve his dreams, but she apparently wanted something less superficial, a more ”passionate and loving relationship” now that she’s outgrown adolescent romance. Mizuki is once again surprised when she brushes off his romantic overture, petulantly walking home while beginning to accept that something has indeed changed. Finally fastening the screws on his new chair (in lieu of the bed) he begins to regain some solo stability, a little more self-sufficient at least even if he still has some some growth to achieve on his own. A whimsical tale of millennial malaise and self-centred male entitlement, The Hardness of Avocado is a gentle advocation for learning to let go when something’s past its best while accepting that sometimes all you can do is set yourself right and start again. 


The Hardness of Avocado screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)