Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 10, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

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 Suga, Godzilla: Final Wars), quickly utilizes her considerable feminine charms to pawn him off on the dopey, selfish, washed-up author Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka, Madadayo), 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 sequel.