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)

Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Nobuhiro Doi, 2004)

be-with-youWhen it comes to tragic romances, no one does them better than Japan. Adapted from a best selling novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Ima, ai ni Yukimasu) is very much part of the “Jun-ai” or “pure love” boom kickstarted by Crying Out Love In the Center of the World released the same year but taps into Japan’s long history of supernaturally tinged love stories, filled with the weight of impending tragedy and the essential transience of the human experience.

Like many such tales, Be With You begins with a framing sequence set 12 years after the main events, but unusually it’s directed from the point of view of the soon-to-be 18 year old, Yuji (Yuta Hiraoka). Receiving a birthday cake from a bakery which has apparently only stayed open because of its promise to deliver birthday cakes to him every year until he turns 18, Yuji begins to reflect on the “miracle” which he and his father experienced all those years ago.

Yuji’s mother passed away at the age of 28 when he was only 5 years old. However, before she died, Mio (Yuko Takeuchi) had prepared a special picture book for Yuji to try and help him process what was happening. In the book, Mio has gone to a place called “Archive Star” and will return for the first rainy season a year after her death. Improbable as it is, Yuji and his father Takumi (Shido Nakamura) discover a woman who looks exactly like Mio lost in the forest during the first rains. Stunned the pair take her home but Mio has no knowledge of her former life as a wife and mother. Gradually, Mio begins to fall in love with her husband all over again whilst bonding with her young son, but their happiness is short lived as Mio realises her time with them is limited.

Because Mio can’t remember, we experience the love story between the teenage Takumi and Mio firstly through his eyes as he tells her of his unrequited high school crush when she sat at the desk across from him for two years during in which he was too shy to say anything. Later we hear the same story again from Mio’s perspective through her diary where we learn, not altogether surprisingly, that she felt the same way. The pair mirror each other throughout their courtship, wanting to say something but lacking the courage and looking for excuses to try and push the situation in a better direction. Other than the mutually unresolved attempts at phone calls and an unreturned pen, Mio and Takumi essentially relive their original romance in the brief time they are able to share together from repeated motifs of untied shoelaces and clumsiness with a bicycle, to innocent in pocket hand holding.

Takumi has an ongoing medical condition which interferes with his motor functions, slowing him down and giving him an air of soulful melancholy later compounded by his romantic tragedy. Having been a champion runner on a sports scholarship to college, the diagnosis causes extreme disruption to his life and leads him to the typically jun-ai decision to break up with Mio because he feels as if he’d be a burden to her. A year after Mio passed away, Takumi is doing his best to bring up his son but is a little distant and struggling to take care of the domestic environment. When Mio realises that she can’t take care of them forever, she switches her focus to trying to prepare her husband and son for life alone – teaching Yuji how to fry eggs and do the laundry, whilst renewing her emotional bond with Takumi. There’s no happy ending in store for Mio, the loss cannot be avoided and perhaps it might even be worse to have had this brief respite from the ongoing pain, but the six week rainy season does, at least, provide an opportunity to say those things that might have otherwise gone unsaid.

Nobuhiro Doi films in a typically elegant fashion making great use of the area’s natural beauty to create a fairy tale atmosphere from the mysterious, life giving forest. The poignancy of the tale is all the deeper knowing that Mio eventually understood what would happen to her, but chose a brief life with Takumi and her son over the possibility of a longer one without them. Heartbreakingly sad, yet a testament to the importance of appreciating the present which all too soon becomes the past, Be With You is a genuinely romantic love story, not only between a husband and a wife but an entire family carrying the weight of a tragic loss but easing the burden by treasuring the memory of the intense love shared between them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

still walkingLife is full of choices, but the one thing you can’t choose is your family. Like it or not you’re stuck with them for life and even if you decide you want nothing to do with them ever again, they’ll still be hanging round in the back of your mind for evermore. Koreeda swings the camera back around the fulcrum of Japanese society for this dissection of the fault lines and earthquake zones rubbing up against this very ordinary family.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that some kind of celebration is about to take place at the beginning of Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Aruitemo Aruitemo) yet the event that is about to bring scattered friends and family members back home is of a more somber nature. As the matriarch Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) peels vegetables with her daughter Chinami (YOU) she seems excited at the prospect of getting the family back together again yet melancholic and perhaps a little nervous.

Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is taking the train in with his new wife and stepson. He urges Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) that they should make their excuses and leave in time for the last train but she feels obliged to stay over. It’s clear Ryota is not looking forward to a reunion with his family and also has some current worries over his working situation which are weighing on his mind and which he definitely does not want anyone in the family to find out about.

Ryota has a particularly strained relationship with his difficult doctor father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) who doted on his oldest son, Junpei, drowned at sea whilst saving the life of a little boy. Increasingly grumpy that he has no heir for his medical practice, Kyohei refuses to recognise Ryota as a grown man or accept his work as an art restorer as a “real” occupation. Tensions in the family are further brought out by the mild disapproval over Ryota’s choice of wife who was previously married and then widowed and has a young son by her first husband. Toshiko for one still harbours an old fashioned stigma towards second marriages and thinks Ryota could have done better than “buying second hand”. Though seemingly accepting of her new daughter-in-law and grandson, she perhaps treats them a little more like guests than fully fledged members of the family.

Set over the course of two days, Still Walking takes on a sense of Chekovian wit and melancholy as it paints a naturalistic picture of an ordinary family with all of the petty cruelties and indignation that involves. The deceased son, Junpei, has become a virtual saint, forever bathed in golden light by his grieving parents while Ryota remains very much alive yet pushed into the shadows. Feeling himself to raise only feelings of disappointment in his family, he adopts a truculent, defensive air which sees him unwilling to engage leaving the bulk of the work for his new wife who is eager to please her in-laws despite their frequent tactlessness in dealing with herself and her son.

Of course, Ryota and his father aren’t so different at all – both gruff, defensive, grumpy. Kyohei is a difficult man sinking into a miserable old age where he can no longer busy himself with the role which has given his life meaning, that of a respected small town doctor. When bubbly younger sister Chinami mentions having seen a newspaper report which referred to painting restorers as “art doctors”, neither man is very happy with being linked with the other yet there is a certain commonality between them that oddly forces them apart rather than ties them together.

Toshiko by contrast is the long suffering yet largely silent housewife whose maternal grief is the force which now defines her. Seemingly sweet and kind on the outside, there’s a tough core in the middle which gives way to some decidedly biting remarks lightly peppering the atmosphere with ancient resentments. Perhaps feeling a strange sort of kinship with the mystery guest-cum-kicking-boy-of-the-day – Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved but has not made good on his investment as he’s turned into a slobbish and overweight 25 year old child who can’t seem to settle on one proper career, Ryota asks why his mother insists on inviting him every year knowing how painful it must be for him to come. Toshiko coldly replies that that’s exactly the reason she intends to keep making him visit, she feels wretched inside 24/7 so for one day every year she makes someone else feel dreadful too – will anyone blame her for that?

Grief and loss play a heavy part here, not only of the literal kind, but in the feeling of time wasted and the disappearing moments which can never be recaptured. Chinami’s son and daughter team up with Ryota’s stepson Atsushi to provide a melancholic mirror of the the three Yokoyama children playing in the same fields and staring at the same fleeting flowers as their forebears did years before. Time is always passing, you think there will always be another opportunity for saying something or other, forging a connection or new memory but soon enough the sand in the glass runs through. As Ryota notes, it’s always a little later than you think but you can’t see it until it’s already too late.

Dense with naturalistic detail, Still Walking is a warm if sad look at one ordinary family dealing with the aftermath of tragedy yet offers its own comments on the nature of human connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and between the living and the dead. A timely reminder of the transience of all things, Koreeda’s most straightforward take on the family drama proves a both profound and moving experience which only deepens with repeated viewing.


I rewatched this recently at an ICA members’ screening where it screened on 35mm but the print actually had an intermission built into it even though the film isn’t all that long – strange experience!

Still Walking is available on DVD and VOD in the UK from New Wave Films and was also released on blu-ray in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.

The film’s Japanese title Aruitemo Aruitemo is taken from the song made famous by Ayumi Ishida – Blue Light Yokohama which turns out to have a surprising significance within the film: