It all started with quite a
bit of confusion. I thought we were going
to some movie called Always, but
then my friend emailed me and said we were
going to something called san-chome yuhi.
Lacking the motivation to look up the words
in my dictionary or the curiosity to ask too
many questions, I piled into one of those
minuscule Japanese cars with my friends and
off went we to a small, worn-down movie establishment
where tickets cost a "cheap" 1500
yen rather than the 1800 yen of normal, first-run
theaters. Clarity was not one of the defining
features of that, my first viewing of Always:
Sunset on Third Street (or Always:
San-chome no yuhi). As I waded through
the unfiltered Japanese experience and heroically
strained to match meaning with the events
unfolding before me, I realized I was watching
a pretty decent flick, and by the end, as
the saccharine hit the fan, I shed a tear
for those characters and their own trials.
I have since seen the movie approximately
1 ¾ more times, for behold the Japanese
DVD release wondrously includes English subtitles
for the nihongo-handicapped. Director Takashi
Yamazaki, perhaps better known in the States
for his absurd film Returner (2002) and the
also ridiculous anime series Heat Guy J, has
crafted here a fine film that is high budget
and highly sappy and I love it.
Crank on back the clock, because this
film takes place in 1958. Less than fifteen years
after the war, Japan is still recuperating, but the
Japanese people have a lot of spirit and a lot of
hope as the Tokyo Tower begins to fill in the skyline.
Mutsuko Hoshino (Maki Horikita, Crying
Out for Love, In the Center of the World)
is a poor teenager coming to Tokyo for a job working
at what she understands is an auto company. She is,
as they say, from "the sticks," so Tokyo
is dazzling and she has her hopes up to work a glamorous
job. However, when she meets the explosively temperamental
Mr. Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi, One
Missed Call) and witnesses his junky, tiny
three-wheeled truck, and then, worse, his equally
tiny car repair shop, her dreams are shattered—even
more so when she discovers he expects her to know
all about repairing cars! If misunderstandings are
thick at Suzuki Auto, manipulation is the special
of the day at a small bar run by beauty Hiromi (Koyuki,
The Last Samurai). Hiromi, having been saddled
with her former friend's unwanted son Junnosuke (Kenta
Final Wars), quickly utilizes her considerable
feminine charms to pawn him off on the dopey, selfish,
washed-up author Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka,
known derisively as Mr. Literature to many in the
town. Ryunosuke grudgingly and uncaringly puts up
with the whelp initially out of social pressure, but
then, as Junnosuke's writing talent and enthusiasm
for Ryunosuke's work becomes apparent, connections
begin to forge. All this while the mighty winds of
change bring new technology, new friendships, old
hurts, and old debts to twist and try the warm relationships
established and see just how strong they really are.
Always presents a heavily
nostalgized 1958 Tokyo. The world it creates is
immensely appealing, recalling the breathtaking
wonder of now-commonplace televisions and refrigerators
and other pieces of life that seem so simple now.
The storyline and characters are also very sentimentalized—love
runs thick, and tragic circumstance is largely
material for hope for tomorrow. Actually, my friend
compared this film to a higher budget Hallmark
Hall of Fame special, which isn't entirely unfair.
However, there is one rather huge difference:
the source material.
Always is based on the comic
by Ryohei Saigan, and the manga source is apparent
up on screen. Characters aren't exactly realistic,
and their reactions to things are sometimes (ahem)
comically over-the-top. The example that comes
most readily to mind is Suzuki's monstrous temper,
which manifests itself at its extreme at one point
when he begins literally roaring and mightily
thrusts his chest forward to smash some sliding
doors out and cause them to fly through the air.
Instead of realism, characters are drawn in sometimes
broad strokes that capture their most important
characteristics and make them memorable and, I
would argue, resonant. To me, the characters resonate
with something inside. To me, it's not just melodrama;
they are characters I can connect with. To say
that some of them are broadly written doesn't
mean they all are, either; poor boy Junnosuke
is crafted carefully with his simple emotional
needs and quiet, intense personality.
Indeed, Kenta Suga gives a fine
performance here. He is well cast and appears
as if he hasn't been fed properly in some time.
The emotional neediness and silent, fiery determination
seem to come naturally to Suga. Easily equaling
his performance is Hidetaka Yoshioka as the loser
writer Ryunosuke Chagawa. Yoshioka is obviously
experienced and can carry a character role easily,
and his Mr. Literature, with his whiny bellows
and constant haplessness, is very charming. I
want to see him in some other roles.
Not all the acting is done so well,
however. Maki Horikita as Mutsuko is disappointing.
It appears that she doesn't quite know how to
balance her performance for this kind of movie,
and so she comes off forced and unnatural much
of the time. Her character is quite likable, but
her performance doesn't match it. Similarly, Mr.
Suzuki's son Ippei, as performed by Kazuki Koshimizu,
is fun as a brat, but he can't seem to carry other
emotions very well yet. I hope to see him grow
as an actor in other roles, but he doesn't seem
to be getting many if IMDB is to be believed.
To create a convincing 1958 Japan, Always relies heavily on CGI for backgrounds
and crowd scenes. Sometimes it's very noticeable;
in one scene at a train station, it's clear that
most of the people aren't real because of their
stiff, robotic movements. Some of the backgrounds
and scene transitions aren't very convincing,
either, but for the most part, it's done quite
well and I usually couldn't tell how much CGI
was being used. Obviously it's not as good as
the best Hollywood has to offer, but the work
here is solid and effective.
Music by Naoki Sato is pervasive,
and includes several themes for different characters.
For example, Mr. Literature has an initially twangy
guitar theme that reflects his grungy character,
and the theme evolves into different instrumentation
as the movie goes on. The main theme of the film
is a somewhat sappy piece that often utilizes
strings and piano, but which grows to full orchestration.
Music is used often, even during some scenes of
conversation, and is obviously meant to heighten
emotion. This could grate on some, but for some
reason it worked for me.
This film has gotten some fairly
harsh comments on IMDB, and it is understandable. Always isn't for everyone. It might help
to be familiar with some of the conventions of
Japanese manga and anime to really "get"
this film, although that isn't needed to enjoy
it. In my opinion, this is a well-crafted sentimental
sugar rush, and I'm looking forward to the cavity-wreaking