What is love? Is it an accident, cosmic destiny, or something that finally you have to choose? The romantically inclined hero of Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) is convinced that romance is something that happens to you at an unexpected moment, but his friends worry that he’s letting life pass him by because of his bashful passivity. While the city is gripped by the upcoming world heavyweight boxing championship which might finally result in a Japanese underdog raising the belt, its citizens gain the courage to fight for love, but discover that love is less victory than mutual concession.
Sato (Haruma Miura), a hopelessly romantic salaryman, is forced to stand outside the station in the centre of Sendai conducting public surveys to make up the data that was lost when he accidentally spilt coffee on his colleague’s computer. Naturally shy, he’s not an ideal fit for the job but serendipitously bonds with a young woman, Saki (Mikako Tabe), when they are both captivated by the soulful song of a street musician. She agrees to fill in his form, and he notices she has “shampoo” written on her hand. He thinks it might be a sign, but she’s gone before he can do much about it.
Sato’s college buddies Yumi (Erika Mori) and Kazuma (Yuma Yamoto), married young in a shotgun wedding but seemingly blissfully happy and parents to two adorable children, are quick to tell him that his romantic desire for serendipitous love is just thinly veiled cowardice and his essential passivity, refusing to put himself out there, is the reason he’ll end up alone. Meanwhile, Yumi is also trying to support her longterm single sister, Minako (Shihori Kanjiya), who is in a strange “relationship” with the younger brother of a client at her hairdressing salon. Despite talking regularly on the phone, he seems reluctant to meet because his job keeps him very busy which leaves her feeling confused and suspicious.
Yumi and Kazuma think they ended up together out of necessity, but that necessity was in its own way chance. Secretly, Kazuma might wonder what might have happened if he’d been careless with some other girl, but has come to the conclusion that he’s glad it was Yumi and not someone else. Sato’s colleague Fujima (Taizo Harada), meanwhile, thought he had a cheerily romantic origin story for his relationship – a classic dropped wallet meet cute of the kind Kazuma insisted only happens in the movies, but now nearing 40 his wife has left him and the failure of his marriage has provoked a nervous breakdown. Sato asks him if he’s still glad it was his wife who dropped her wallet and not someone else, and if she’s glad that it was him who picked it up. Not only can he not quite answer, he doesn’t quite want to know.
Meanwhile, Minako discovers that her diffident lover has decided to stake his romantic future on the championship match, that if the Japanese challenger wins he’ll finally have the courage to speak his heart. Minako is angry and disappointed, infuriated that he has so little courage that he has to vicariously channel the power of someone else to confess his feelings, but is as glued to the match as everyone else. 10 years on, the same thing happens again. Yumi and Kazuma’s daughter, Mio (Yuri Tsunematsu), is now a rebellious teen fed up with her father’s perpetually easygoing attitude and infuriated by a school friend, Kurume (Riku Hagiwara), who also pins his romantic hopes on the boxing match while inwardly resenting his overly spineless father (Yurei Yanagi) for becoming a mere cog in the great machine of capitalism. His refreshingly honest mother (Mari Hamada), however, reminds him that everyone thinks that when they’re 17 but really there’s no life without compromise and cogs at least have their place in keeping the wheels turning. Kurume finds this out by chance when his dad is able to save him from a sticky situation using classically meek, salaryman-style strategy.
Perhaps what Kurume resents is the sense of impending powerlessness that comes of being a teenager squaring off against the salaryman straightjacket even if he’s still too diffident to put up much resistance. Meanwhile, the reverse is also true. The youngsters bond while staking out a bicycle parking garage to look for a thief who stole Mio’s 60 yen parking sticker and put it on his own bike, leaving her with the fine. They discover it’s an old man who wastes no time in yelling at the young whippersnappers while kicking off against his sense of impotence by gaming the system over a measly 60 yen he could have easily paid. The same thing happens again at Mio’s part-time job where a horrible old man decides to take out his frustrations with his place in the world on an innocent teenage girl.
10 years earlier, Sato had saved a boy with hearing problems from being beaten up by bullying classmates, giving him new strength by introducing him to Japan’s boxing champ. The inevitable, however, happens, and even champion boxers have feet of clay. Things don’t always go to plan, or perhaps they do but that only makes you wonder if you’re really on the right path or merely settling for that of least resistance. The street singer’s song asks if you’re happy where you’ve ended up or if you still want more than ordinary happiness. Sato, still diffident, has to admit that perhaps he isn’t sure, while Saki does something much the same in wondering if they’re only still together out of habit and a misplaced belief in the narrative destiny of their serendipitous meeting. Another championship match sees them all ready for the fight once again, encouraged by the embattled boxer’s refusal to give-up on his fighting dreams, but perhaps still waiting for a “sign”. What Sato learns, however, is that they don’t always arrive quite as serendipitously as one might might think. “It builds up” Fujima warns him, waking up to the fact that his wife likely left him after years of small microagressions that killed their love through taking it for granted. But love can build up too, if only you build up the courage to fight for it with a willingness to be honest with your feelings, and what’s life if not lots of little nights filled with lots of little love, no grand romance but maybe not so bad after all.
Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.
International trailer (English subtitles)
The song – Chiisana Yoru by Kazuyoshi Saito