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)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English 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)