Every country has their eras of peculiar nostalgia; the USA has recently been squeezing all the nostalgia bucks they can get from the widespread affection for the 80s, but certainly retro fads have also existed for the 50s, 60s, and 70s in America. In Japan, though, Showa nostalgia is king—though not the ENTIRE Showa period. Technically, “Showa” refers to the time in which Emperor Hirohito was on the throne in Japan, which would entail a period from 1920s to the 1980s. However, when most people in Japan think of Showa retro style and the ache for those old times, they are yearning for the post-war period—generally the 1950s to the early 1970s. Living in Japan, I have seen this enduring fad crop up in old-timey candy shops, kamishibai entertainers at festivals, a very popular sandwich shop in Kokura, retro TV show revivals, and—in the world of movies—particularly the work of Takashi Yamazaki and his Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy—the most infamous of which is the middle film from 2007, to be discussed today.
Based on the ongoing manga by Ryohei Saigan that began back in the 70s, the first Always film made a big impression on me back when I first lived in Japan in the mid-2000s. I attended the film accompanied by my meager Japanese skills and a clutch of college-age friends. The film (which swept the Japanese Academy awards in 2006) has impressive effects for its time, recreating the world of 1950s Japan through a combination of sometimes-convincing CGI work along with props and sets, and the film tells an achingly melodramatic and heartwarming set of intertwining stories dealing with growing up, chasing dreams, and grasping for love in the midst of tragedy. I loved the movie and reviewed it here for Toho Kingdom in 2007. I didn’t get to view the sequel until some years later, and revisiting it now, after experiencing Yamazaki’s Godzilla the Ride and the nostalgia-fest that is Seibuen Amusement Park, the movie certainly hits with a renewed poignancy. While the film runs rather long and has an overwhelming tangle of narrative threads, the central themes of community, of chasing dreams, and of the preciousness of love-bonds in a hardscrabble life remain virile here.
Note that I will be discussing some potential spoilers, as I often like to do. Take this opportunity to go watch the film and then come back to enjoy my analysis.
The story picks up after the events from the first film. Young lady Mutsuko “Roku” Hoshino (Maki Horikita) from Aomori is still chasing her dreams in Tokyo, living with the Suzukis and working at Suzuki Auto as a mechanic—though now an old classmate of hers is also lurking around, hoping for love. Meanwhile, Mr. Suzuki’s brother has lost his business, and so is leaning on the family to care for his spoiled daughter Mika (Ayame Koike, Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo ), much to the displeasure of Suzuki brat Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu) who regularly locks horns with her. Meanwhile again, Mr. Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi) has been invited for a reunion with his old platoon with whom he fought in WWII, and he is stressed out, anxious about discovering which of his fellow men-at-arms perished in the war. At the same time, total loser wannabe novelist Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka, who won a Japanese Academy Award for this role in the original film) is barely getting by with his adopted son Junnosuke Furuyuki (Kenta Suga), and Junnosuke’s biological father is raring to yoink the kid out of poverty if Chagawa can’t rub a few more coins together and offer the kid a decent standard of living. Also plus, at another part of the city, Hiromi Izhizaki (Koyuki) works as an exotic dancer and is being courted by scumbags, but she is holding out for Chagawa who proposed to her in the previous film. As things come to a head in these and other story loops, Chagawa goes on a mad attempt to write a story to win the Akutagawa Prize and achieve some kind of monetary solvency, and most of the disparate story beats pump together as one to achieve maximum melodrama at the end.
Just trying to etch out the various plot points above should illustrate how diffuse the film can get—and I didn’t even mention the weird doctor who dances for tanukis in the park, nor the stray dog adopted by Mika, nor Chagawa’s high school reunion, nor Ippei’s quest to visit the recently completed Tokyo Tower. There is a LOT going on in this movie, which may reflect the nature of the original manga. After rewatching the movie for this review, I visited the local 7-11 and found a copy of a recent volume of the manga (which is titled only Sunset on Third Street—not “Always”). I bought it and sat down to leaf through the thing, and the volume I have does not have an ongoing story at all—in fact, NONE of the characters from the film trilogy appeared in the book I purchased, so far as I could tell. Each chapter was a self-contained story mostly centered around the Japanese week of holidays known as Golden Week, and each chapter focused on a different family with no overlap. One was about an aging woman with a fiery will for independence—she wants to divorce her inattentive husband and explores her options for doing so. Another story centered around two sisters and the pain of hand-me-downs, with a set of notes about how back in the day regular practice for parents was to pass down clothing from big siblings to the youngsters. Some of the stories abandon verisimilitude altogether. One centered on a poor family who can’t afford to travel until a set of alien rabbits give them an opportunity to fly around the world. Yet another was about this guy who married a celestial ageless sky woman whom he spotted bathing in the river (complete with nudity—which feels weird given the wildly-stylized art), and another detailed a pair of pets chatting away with one another while their owners go on a holiday trip. Many of the stories include loving details about retro Japan and how people lived back in the day, the foods they ate, the troubles they had in their cultural time and place. But while the manga certainly has warm melodrama and family values to spare (and a surprising amount of fantasy, given that the movie mostly plays things straight), the stories are so disconnected that it’s a little surprising to me that the Always films are not outright anthologies.
But Always 2 is stronger for the through lines; if the movie had just been self-contained episodes stitched together, it’s hard to imagine that the story would have been half as moving in the end. The second movie is building off a lot of the goodwill from the beloved original and its set of endearing characters, and while I think most of cast have less to do given the fissiparous side quests, it just feels good to spend time with everyone again.
Mr. Suzuki and his towering pride and explosive temper coupled with surprising fears and tenderness adds equal humor and pathos with his scenes. The adorable Roku has a feeble arc here with a potential beau and an outing with friends to see a Yujiro Ishihara double feature (they saw Man Who Causes a Storm and Rusty Knife, for those wondering), but her thick Tsugaru accent adds color, and her cheerful spirit adds grace. Ippei was a weak link in the first film, and the actor does marginally better here, but the character has one of the better arcs with his softening relationship beside proud Mika and her own thorny personality issues. In the first film I really liked poor Junnosuke, who returns with a handful of sweet moments (such as when he helps Mika with laundry or sacrifices his lunches for the Chagawa household financial stability). Unfortunately, though, Junnosuke just doesn’t get to do much besides cower in most of his scenes, despite his role as a lynchpin around which so much of the action revolves. Chagawa himself lacks anything resembling a spine for most of the film, and his eventual attempt to reach greater financial stability feels so pie-in-the-sky that it’s hard to consider him as a responsible parent—especially when he falls for an obvious scam and digs himself even deeper into trouble. Still, the resolution that the movie pulls out between him, his lady friend, and Junnosuke is undeniably tender and sweet.
As mentioned previously, the movie has an overflowing number of retro references to tug at the heart and spark reveries of yesteryear. While the effects to create Showa Japan through CGI sometimes look a bit unconvincing with characters not quite blending well with backgrounds, the overall effect still looks impressive—and even if it doesn’t always hit perfectly, that sense of the fantastic is arguably a plus given that the film is leaning into an idealized yesterday, where even the hardships tend to have rounded corners and happy endings. Still, for viewers in the West, many of the references will not quite register, so I wanted to point out a few of them really quick.
As mentioned above, Roku attends a double-feature of Yujjro Ishihara films from Nikkatsu Studios. Ishihara was a famous heartthrob of the time who was featured in beach films, action flicks, and musicals—Man Who Causes a Storm was one of his most popular movies, in which he played a drummer—and we see Roku and co enjoying this title. I have to say, though, that the scene depicting the movie audience felt very inauthentic as the crowd bopped and bobbed and nearly to a man appeared ready to jump out of their seats during the show. Modern audiences in Japan anyway are not like that at all, being some of the most quiet and dignified viewers I’ve ever seen, to a fault!
As previously mentioned, Mika takes care of a stray dog in the film, and she gives the pup the name Taro, and though the English subtitles cut off her explanation, the name comes from Jiro and Taro—a pair of huskies that were part of a Japanese expedition to Antarctica who were left behind to die in 1958… but managed to survive for eleven months alone! They were rescued by the next expedition, and so became a media phenomenon. Another small part of the film is a rabies scare going around, which is anachronistic, given that the last case of rabies in Japan occurred in 1957—the country has been free of the deadly disease ever since, and so it can be quite expensive to bring over one’s pet to Japan because of the understandable safety measures in place.
Mika, given her rich background, is disgusted to go to a public bath and thus be forced to perform her ablutions with the hoi polloi. At the time, many houses didn’t have baths of their own, and so folks with lesser means frequented public baths and bathed communally on a regular basis. (Public baths still exist today, and occasionally make their way into contemporary media—such as in Kamen Rider Revice, where the main characters run a public bath.) Note that in the scene where Mika is protesting going to the bath, one can hear what sounds like someone playing a flute or recorder tunelessly in the background. I have personally heard that exact song many times in my neighborhood here, and I thought at first that it was just some kids practicing their woodwinds or something, I found out recently that it’s part of the theme song for the local tofu guy who sells homemade tofu out of the back of his van! When I told my coworker about it, she smiled wistfully and remarked at how nostalgic hearing of the tofu truck made her… so the movie was doing its job here, too!
Of course, another big nostalgia point of the movie was the completed Tokyo Tower and Ippei’s quest to go and visit—he is seen saving money to go up the famous landmark. Tokyo Tower was shown in the background of the first film as construction advanced, and the iconic landmark also became a prominent part of the advertising for the film.
Naturally, in the now-famous Godzilla sequence, the kaiju king destroys Tokyo Tower. As I mentioned in my review of Godzilla the Ride, the entire Godzilla sequence feels like a precursor to Shimazaki’s later short film/ride, as both feature very similar sequences of destruction, and both have that retro vibe. If anything, when I visited Seibuen after the amusement park underwent its renewal a couple years ago, I felt like the place had been patterned to create a real-life Always setting, which may not be far from the truth. Interestingly, despite the Godzilla theme song and the familiar monster back plates and nuke-breath, that’s not really Godzilla but a deliberate rip-off written by Chagawa in one of his boys’ adventure stories, as explained in the very next scene. In other words, it’s a Toho-produced inversion of that parody scene from Goldmember.
I wanted to make a few comments on Roku here, and her very distinctive accent. “Roku” means “Six,” coming from her name “Mutsuko” (written as 六子 in Japanese—which literally means “six child”—she must have a big family!), and her dialect of Japanese comes from her hometown in Aomori prefecture in the northern part of the main island of Honshu. My disappointment in actress Maki Horikita’s portrayal of Roku in the first film may have stemmed from her seemingly exaggerated inflections performing this tongue, known as the Tsugaru dialect, and it is specifically from the Hirosaki area. I went on a trip to Hirosaki back in 2007 when I visited a friend there, and I remember being surprised that the doors to trains don’t automatically open at the stops as a way to preserve the heat inside during the cold winters. It is said that the Tsugaru dialect uses shorter words to make conversation fast and efficient as a means of dealing with the cold, too—and the dialect can come across to other Japanese like a foreign language (my former friend who used to live there picked up some of the accent and was told by mutual friends in Tokyo that he was unintelligible). You can find examples on YouTube, and I watched one where a pair of Japanese girls demonstrated a thoroughly incomprehensible (to me) short conversation in the dialect which went viral and produced various comments of wonder and confusion from Japanese in other areas of Japan. At least one commented that the words sounded like Korean. Both Roku and her friends who appear in the movie speak using heavily accented Japanese that can come across as forced, but they also add to the flavor of the film and its celebration of Japanese culture. Much of this aspect of the film is completely lost in the English translation, including one scene where Roku and her friends are commenting on just how cool actor Yujiro Ishihara is, and the girls correct one another using their local tongue. It’s a cute scene.
Buttressing the above, the score by Naoki Sato (who frequently has collaborated with director Yamazaki) is gorgeous and emotional, with deeply moving themes and beautiful orchestral instrumentation. His score for the first film won him the Japanese Academy Prize for best score, and it’s not hard to see why given just how memorable the themes are and how deeply touching the resonant melodies can be—particularly the central theme. Listening now to a performance on YouTube just to refresh my memory, it really hits me hard how perfect the music is for the film and its emotional core.
While Always 2 is self-indulgent and very saccharine, and perhaps a bit overlong, it’s also an excellent example of an emotionally-satisfying drama with likable characters and a wonderful sense of place and time. I am a big sucker for the first two movies (and most of the third), but I buy into the pathos because of the craft and love that Yamazaki and others put into the film, its look, and its resonant feel. While I don’t think some of the character arcs quite stick their landings, and a few performances (particularly from younger actors) still feel thin (I’m looking at you, Mika), nevertheless with the beautiful soundtrack, the well-crafted sequences, and the intimately pieced-together tear-jerking story construction, Always 2 comes out as a winning film of its type and is great for a movie night with the family.