Saturday, July 13, 2013

Japan Cuts ’13 & NYAFF ’13: A Story of Yonosuke

He was the sort of guy who would always help a friend move.  He would also loan them money without grumbling.  Yonosuke Yokomichi was a mop-topped tool, but he had a good heart.  The impact he had on his college friends is slowly but surely revealed in Shuichi Okita’s massively bittersweet A Story of Yonosuke (trailer here), which screens today as a co-presentation of the 2013 Japan Cuts and this year’s NewYork Asian Film Festival.

In the 1980’s, Japan’s booming economy had our opportunistic politicians worked up into a protectionist fury.  As a freshman business administration student, Yokomichi would seem well placed to join the economic elite, even if he is a naïve kid fresh off the bus from the coast.  However, our protagonist’s college years will be more defined by his involvement in the samba club than his course work.

Actually, the samba club looks like a blast.  Characteristically, it was something he just fell into.  Joining on freshman orientation day with two recent acquaintances, he would stay, even after an unplanned pregnancy forced Kuramochi and Akutsu to drop-out.  Yet years later as a happily married couple they reflect on how Yokomichi brought them together.

Yusuke Kato also has found memories of the title character, even though it took him a while to warm up to the earnest doofus.  Nonetheless, it would be Yokomichi’s tolerance that the jaded Kato remembers so fondly.  Ironically, it is Kato who introduces Yokomichi to Shoko Yosano, the great love of his life and perhaps vice versa.  It takes a while for them to realize it though and given the film’s elegiac tone, it is probably safe to assume they never really get in synch.

There are no big known-down drag-out melodramatic episodes in Story.  The film is too smart for that kind of acting-out.  Instead, Okita focuses on the sort of small telling moments that become indelibly etched in memory.  When he finally delivers the film’s Rosebud moment, it is devastatingly effective because of its casual simplicity.

Somewhat resembling a Japanese Louis Garrel, Kengo Kora is gangly and weirdly fidgety, but he plays Yokomichi with a fresh-faced charisma that grows over the long haul.  The on-screen chemistry he forges with Yoriko Yoshitaka’s Shoko Yosano is mature, complicated, and highly credible.  Likewise, her work as the one who got away (or let him get away) is remarkably honest and multifaceted. As her character evolves day-by-day and year-to-year, it is hard to say just what their relationship truly meant to her, but it was definitely something. Yet, Ayumi Ito is the film’s secret weapon, giving it unexpected bite as Chiharu Katase, a scandalous older woman with whom Yokomichi develops a long-term flirtation.

Deceptively simple sounding, Yonosuke is an epic film about the sort of people and events that are typically not portrayed in a grand manner.  Combining good humor and an elegant sensitivity, A Story of Yonosuke is an excellent film that is likely to be sadly overlooked by arthouse distributors because it lacks a sexy hook.  However, those who see the film will remember it warmly just like the title character’s friends.  Highly recommended, it screens this afternoon (7/13) at the Japan Society, as a joint presentation of this year’s Japan Cuts and New York Asian Film Festival.