Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, Shosuke Murakami, 2006)

Christmas July 24th AvenueThey do Christmas a little differently in Japan. Rather than a celebration of family and commercial excess, Christmas is an occasion for romance much like the Western Valentine’s Day. Strangely, Japanese cinema has been slow to warm to the idea of the Christmas date movie though Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, 7 gatsu 24 ka dori no Kurisumasu) tries its best to plug the gap. Starring the ever reliable Miki Nakatani, Christmas on July 24 Avenue is a grown-up romance filtered through the innocence of the shojo manga its heroine has come to love.

Sayuri Honda (Miki Nakatani) is a 24 year old office lady who dreams of romance but has come to believe that she just isn’t destined for a great love of her own. Obsessed with a manga she’s loved since childhood which is set in Lisbon, Sayuri has begun to notice the various similarities between her hometown of Nagasaki and the Portuguese capital, living part-time in a kind of sunbaked European fantasyland. When her long lost high school crush, Satoshi (Takao Osawa), resurfaces as a famous architect with a bestselling book out, Sayuri’s dreams of romantic fulfilment are suddenly reawakened.

Constructed with obvious projected wish fulfilment, Sayuri’s arc is the rom-com classic of shy girl gets handsome boy after a series of coincidences and misunderstandings. Bespectacled and reserved, Sayuri’s major selling point is her propensity to suddenly fall over and make a spectacle of herself which she does in spectacular fashion during one of the amateur dramatic plays she helps out with. Embracing an unwelcome genre norm, Sayuri’s journey towards true love begins with prettying herself up – swapping her glasses for contacts, getting a more sophisticated haircut, and dressing in more typically elegant girlish outfits over her practical, dowdy tastes.

Rather than allow Sayuri to realise she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to change herself for a man, the arc is Sayuri abandoning her anxieties to become the kind of person she thinks Satoshi would like. While all of this is going on there’s another potential suitor hanging around in the form of Yoshio (Ryuta Sato) – a geeky guy who works in a bookstore and has been nursing a crush on the oblivious Sayuri for years. Several times Yoshio confesses his love, and several times Sayuri fails to understand him. His being a pure love, Yoshio decides to help Sayuri find happiness no matter who with.

Sayuri sees her own situation mirrored in that of her brother. Where Sayuri sees herself as plain and undesirable, her brother is handsome and popular with the ladies – the kind of “prince” she herself dreams of. Despite having a long history of dating remarkable girls, Koji’s new girlfriend (Juri Ueno) is a virtual clone of Sayuri – mousy with glasses and a talent for mumbling. Oddly, Sayuri is not worried by this development in the way that might be expected, but only outraged at her brother’s breaking of romantic protocol in taking up with someone who is nowhere near his league. Resenting that a girl just like her has improbably managed to bag a prince, Sayuri treats her potential new sister-in-law with scorn and contempt whilst continuing to blame her own failure to do the same on her plainness and reserve.

Truth be told, Satoshi is a predictably dull love interest – a cardboard cutout prince of the kind familiar to shojo romance. Additional spice is added in an extra-marital affair between Satoshi and an old flame with whom he apparently has some unfinished business but even this hint of impropriety does not seem to put Sayuri off. Her final revelations tend towards realising that there’s nothing wrong with plain dowdy girls hooking handsome guys, even though she is no longer a plain and dowdy girl herself and her prince is also responsible for a crisis in the marriage of a friend. She has this revelation through a lengthy speech at someone else’s wedding which she has nearly derailed by provoking a crisis of confidence in the bride.

Based on a short story by Shuichi Yoshida – best known for socially conscious crime thrillers such as Villain, Rage, and Parade, Christmas on July 24th Avenue is a consciously cute affair filled with quirky details which attempt to recreate the world of shojo manga but cannot make up for the soulless quality of its romance. A lack of chemistry between Nakatani and Ozawa prevents the love story from taking off while the second lead is kept hovering the background but more sweet joke than credible option. Reaching an improbably neat conclusion in which everything is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after, Christmas on July 24th Avenue fulfils its promise of magical romance filled with cheerful Christmas carols and twinkling lights but proves disappointing after all the fancy wrapping.


30 second trailer (no subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ, Isao Yukisada, 2004)

sekachuJust look at at that title for a second, would you? Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, you’d be hard pressed to find a more poetically titled film even given Japan’s fairly abstract titling system. All the pain and rage and sorrow of youth seem to be penned up inside it waiting to burst forth. As you might expect, the film is part of the “Jun ai” or pure love genre and focusses on the doomed love story between an ordinary teenage boy and a dying girl. Their tragic romance may actually only occupy a few weeks, from early summer to late autumn, but its intensity casts a shadow across the rest of the boy’s life.

The story begins 17 years later, in 2004 when Sakutaro is a successful man living in the city and engaged to be married. Whilst preparing to move, his fiancée, Ritsuko, who happens to be from the same hometown, finds an old jacket of hers in a box which still has a long forgotten cassette tape hidden in the pocket. Dated 28th October 1986, the tape takes Ritsuko back to her childhood and a long forgotten, unfulfilled promise. She leaves a note for Sakutaro and heads home for a bit to think about her past while he, unknowingly, chases after her back to the place where he grew up and the memories of his lost love which he’s been unable to put to rest all these years…

In someways, Crying Out Love is your typical weepy as a young boy and girl find love only to have it cruelly snatched away from them by fate. Suddenly everything becomes so much more intense, time is running out and things which may have taken months or even years to work out have to happen in a matter of hours. In real terms, it’s just a summer when you’re 17 but then when you’re 17 everything is so much more intense anyway even when you don’t have to invite Death to the party too. Aki may have a point when suggesting that the the love the local photographer still carries for their recently deceased headmistress who married another man only lasted so long because it was unfulfilled. Perhaps Aki and Sakutaro’s love story would have been over by the end of high school in any case, but Sakutaro was never given the chance to find out and that unfinished business has continued to hover over him ever since, buzzing away in the back of his mind.

“Unfinished business” is really what the film’s about. Even so far as “pure love” goes, there comes a time where you need to move on. Perhaps the photographer might have been happier letting go of his youthful love and making a life with someone else, although, perhaps that isn’t exactly fair on the “someone else” involved. The photographer’s advice, as one who’s lived in the world a while and knows loneliness only too well, is that the only thing those who’ve been left behind can do is to tie up loose ends. Sakutaro needs to come to terms with Aki’s death so he can finally get on with the rest of his life.

There is a fair amount of melodrama which is only to be expected but largely Crying out Love skilfully avoids the maudlin and manages to stay on the right side of sickly. The performances are excellent across the board with a masterfully subtle performance from Takao Osawa as the older Sakutaro equally matched by the boyishness of a young Mirai Moriyama as his teenage counterpart. The standout performance however comes from Masami Nagasawa who plays the seemingly perfect Aki admired by all for her well rounded qualities from her sporting ability to her beauty and intelligence but also has a mischievous, playful side which brings her into contact with Sakutaro. Her decline in illness is beautifully played as she tries to put a brave face on her situation, determined not to give in and clinging to her romance with Sakutaro even though she knows that she will likely not survive. Kou Shibasaki completes the quartet of major players in a slightly smaller though hugely important role of Sakutaro’s modern day fiancée saddled with a difficult late stage monologue which she carries off with a great deal of skill.

Impressively filmed by Isao Yukisada who neatly builds the films dualities through a series of recurrent motifs, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is not without its melodramatic touches but largely succeeds in being a painfully moving “pure love” story. Beautiful, tragic, and just as poetic as its title, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is a cathartic romance that like Sakutaro’s memories of Aki is sure to linger in the memory for years to come.


The Japanese R2 DVD release of Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World includes English subtitles (Hurray!).

(Unsubbed trailer though, sorry)