My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Takahiro Miki, 2017)

My Teacher posterJapanese cinema is having a mini moment of shojo crisis in its awkward obsession with student/teacher romance. While similarly themed age-gap “romances” such as After the Rain might have been better able to navigate the difficult seas of misplaced adolescent affection, Narratage and latterly My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Sensei! …Suki ni Natte mo ii Desuka?), seem to have gone in a less palatable direction in accidentally implying that our squeamishness with these obviously inappropriate attachments might not be justified. The latest from romantic melodrama veteran Takahiro Miki, My Teacher is a perfect exemplification of the inherent problems with shojo romance and, in this case somewhat ironically, its inability to process the implications of a necessarily romantically naive perspective.

Our heroine, Hibiki Shimada (Suzu Hirose), is a shy, awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on her handsome, if somewhat aloof, history teacher, Mr. Ito (Toma Ikuta). Unlike her classmates, Hibiki has been slow to a romantic awakening and confused by her friends’ various and rapidly changing crushes. Nevertheless, like her best friend Chigusa (Aoi Morikawa), Hibiki has begun to develop feelings for a teacher – Ito whose gruff exterior hides a considerate heart. Mistaking his general kindness for an extension of personal affection, Hibiki has fallen in love and even whilst knowing that there is something not quite acceptable about her feelings decides to pursue her inappropriate crush in the manner only a naive schoolgirl can.

Ito, as expected, turns down Hibiki’s confession with weary resignation. A kind man who seems to limit his interactions with other humans in order to avoid becoming over involved, he is aware of the delicacy of the situation but also of its dangers as regards his own standing as an educator and responsible adult. He wants to protect his student, emotionally and physically, but is at a loss as to how to handle his dilemma without causing her further distress. Consequently, he fails to definitively shut down a tricky set of circumstances in good time, allowing to Hibiki to bamboozle him into an awkward bargain in which she asks him if her crush will be “OK” if she manages to score over 90% on the upcoming test. Surprised, Ito laughs and reminds her of her woeful results in the previous midterms. Understanding that she’s been turned down, Hibiki nevertheless regards Ito’s awkward laughter as a flicker of possibility and continues on in hope.

Had My Teacher continued in the same vein, with Mr. Ito valiantly attempting to guide Hibiki towards a healthier romantic consciousness while remaining mindful of the tenderness of her feelings and the delicacy of the situation as a whole, it might have entered more interesting and less problematic thematic territory. Unfortunately, it remains firmly rooted in shojo romance in which the heroine’s innocent desires must be recognised and so Mr. Ito’s nobility eventually crumbles as he begins to fall for the “earnest”, “awkward” schoolgirl and forgets his “position as a teacher”, finally giving in to “temptation” even if he then agrees that the responsibility for his transgression must rest entirely with him. Ito attempts to remove himself from the situation in recognition of the harm he may be causing, but the film won’t let him because it needs a resolution that is “romantic” rather than “realistic”.

“Realism” rears its head when the inappropriate relationship between the pair is eventually uncovered and Ito hauled before a staff committee to explain himself but the school’s understandable decision that he must be summarily fired for gross misconduct is undercut by its presentation as an act of unavoidable tragedy that fails to make a distinction between “genuine feeling” and “abuse of position”, conveniently forgetting that in these kinds of cases that is not a distinction that it is useful to make. Chigusa, trying to encourage her friend in her great romance, affirms that there is no one in the world it is not OK to love, which might have some truth in it seeing as love itself is rarely wrong, but there are instances where acting on that love would be and a teacher/student relationship is definitely one of them especially where the student is still a minor.

Indeed, the kids resent the fact that everyone treats them as children but they are, as a similarly exasperated teacher tries to explain to them, not yet adults as exemplified by their consistently self-centred perspectives which prevent them from realising the difficult position in which their decision to air their inappropriate feelings places those whom they claim to love. This dawning realisation is heralded as the pathway to adulthood in finally coming to an acceptance of the individual’s place within a community bound by ethical rules and the responsibility one has towards the feelings of others most particularly when they conflict with one’s own. It is however undercut by the irresponsible decision to push the innocent romance to its “natural” conclusion even if it has the decency to wait until after graduation until it does so. Ethically questionable as it is, Miki’s obvious talents are not in question and his beautifully composed emotionally moving aesthetics are out in force but only serve to emphasise the uncomfortably naive sensibilities of the source material.


International trailer (English subtitles)

My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday (ぼくは明日、昨日のきみとデートする, Takahiro Miki, 2016)

Tomorrow I will date with yeaterday's you posterLike the Earth and the Moon, are lovers destined to move past and away from each other, sharing the same space only for a cosmic instant yet forever connected by the arc of their existences? It’s a heavier question than you’d expect from your average romantic melodrama. My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday (ぼくは明日、昨日のきみとデートする, Boku wa Asu, Kino no Kimi to Date Suru), another finely crafted tragic romance from genre master Takahiro Miki, is a kind of sci-fi “junai” in which the barriers to romantic fulfilment aren’t cultural or societal or medical, but cosmic in that our star-crossed lovers occupy opposing temporal realms which conspire against their union while also carving it into the arc of the spacetime continuum like a cruel existential joke.

At 20, art student Takatoshi (Sota Fukushi) spots the beautiful Emi (Nana Komatsu) on his morning commute. Hit by a thunderbolt, he falls for her instantly but is shy and diffident. Despite himself, Takatoshi decides that if she alights at the same station as him then it’s really meant to be and he can’t not at least try talking to her. Alight she does and he chases after her as best he can only for his cheerful attempt to ask for a phone number to be rebuffed by the ultimate excuse that she doesn’t have one. Surprisingly, Emi’s claim turns out to be the truth rather than an attempt to politely decline his attentions, though Takatoshi is surprised that his attempts at romance eventually provoke a few tears from the visibly moved Emi. The pair eventually start dating and are well into the world of young love when Emi reveals her secret – she is from a parallel universe where time runs in the opposite direction. Takatoshi’s future is her past, and her past his future. Their universes only overlap every five years for a maximum of 30 days and so this is their one and only shot at true love.

Miki begins in true romantic fashion as Takatoshi giddily pursues his first, idealised romance only latterly beginning to see signs of trouble on the horizon in Emi’s sometimes quirky behaviour and strange ability to predict the future. They walk through the usual steps towards becoming a committed couple, finally dropping the honourifics in  mutual recognition of their deepening bond, but every decisive step reduces Emi to tears in a fashion that runs beyond the merely cute or girlish. Takatoshi, young, naive, and in love, finds his mild suspicion vindicated when he discovers Emi’s diary which seems to run in reverse order and mainly contains entries for dates which have not yet happened.

Gradually, Takatoshi begins to realise that he and Emi exist on opposing planes, destined forever to orbit each other with only this brief moment of connection to sustain them. He muses on whether moving past each other is the natural path of a romance before learning to accept the transitory nature of love so that he might appreciate this brief gift he’s been given even in the knowledge that it will soon be over. Briefly petulant, he resents Emi’s dependence on the diary, filled as it is with “facts” from his 25-year-old self gleaned during a “previous” meeting, wondering if she is merely going through the motions of their predetermined romance and spoiling his vision of easy, serendipitous love in the process.

Privileging his own perspective, Takatoshi comes late to the realisation that Emi has been making a series of sacrifices on his behalf and that their strange romance is likely to prove much more painful for her than it will for him. Their relationship is built not on “shared” memories, but only in their brief moments of togetherness as they actively forge a present for themselves which is distinct from their two worlds of past and future. Like the diverging points which heralded their meeting, they are travelling in different directions – every first for him is a last for her as their moments of joy and pain become strange mirrors of their eventual heartbreak. Nevertheless, each eventually comes to the realisation that their love is worth enduring despite its inevitably sad end and that something of it is destined to remain even in the entropic melancholy of their love story. An old fashioned romance in every sense, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday offers a surprisingly deep appreciation of true love anchored by mutual understanding and emotional equality even if it acknowledges that the world is cruel and that love is unlikely to survive as anything more than a bittersweet memory.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Takahiro Miki, 2013)

girl in the sunny placeThe “jun-ai” boom might have been well and truly over by the time Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Hidamari no Kanojo) hit the screen, but tales of true love doomed are unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. Based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya, Girl in the Sunny Place is another genial romance in which teenage friends are separated, find each other again, become happy and then have that happiness threatened, but it’s also one that hinges on a strange magical realism born of the affinity between humans and cats.

25 year old Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto) is a diffident advertising executive living a dull if not unhappy life. Discovering he’s left it too late to ask out a colleague, Kousuke is feeling depressed but an unexpected meeting with a client brightens his day. The pretty woman standing in the doorway with the afternoon sun neatly lighting her from behind is an old middle school classmate – Mao (Juri Ueno), whom Kosuke has not seen in over ten years since he moved away from his from town and the pair were separated. Eventually the two get to know each other again, fall in love, and get married but Mao is hiding an unusual secret which may bring an end to their fairytale romance.

Filmed with a breezy sunniness, Girl in the Sunny Place straddles the line between quirky romance and the heartrending tragedy which defines jun-ai, though, more fairytale than melodrama, there is still room for bittersweet happy endings even in the inevitability of tragedy. Following the pattern of many a tragic love story, Miki moves between the present day and the middle school past in which Kosuke became Mao’s only protector when she was mercilessly bullied for being “weird”. Mao’s past is necessarily mysterious – adopted by a policeman (Sansei Shiomi) who found her wandering alone at night, Mao has no memory of her life before the age of 13 and lacks the self awareness of many of the other girls, turning up with messy hair and dressed idiosyncratically. When Kousuke stands up to the popular/delinquent kids making her life a misery, the pair become inseparable and embark on their first romance only to be separated when Kosuke’s family moves away from their hometown of Enoshima.

“Miraculously” meeting again they enjoy a typically cute love story as they work on the ad campaign for a new brassiere collection which everyone else seems to find quite embarrassing. As time moves on it becomes apparent that there’s something more than kookiness in Mao’s strange energy and sure enough, the signs become clear as Mao’s energy fades and her behaviour becomes less and less normal.

The final twist, well signposted as it is, may leave some baffled but is in the best fairytale tradition. Maki films with a well placed warmth, finding the sun wherever it hides and bathing everything in the fuzzy glow of a late summer evening in which all is destined go on pleasantly just as before. Though the (first) ending may seem cruel, the tone is one of happiness and possibility, of partings and reunions, and of the transformative powers of love which endure even if everything else has been forgotten. Beautifully shot and anchored by strong performances from Juri Ueno and Jun Matsumoto, Girl in the Sunny Place neatly sidesteps its melodramatic premise for a cheerfully affecting love story even if it’s the kind that may float away on the breeze.


Original trailer (no subtitles)