When Third Window Films was founded back in 2005, it declaimed that its own mission statement was to push aside the blackout curtain of long-haired Japanese ghosts and look beyond to the brighter range of Asian cinema. It's something that they have maintained over the years, their recent releases running the gamut from the crunching violence of Tokyo Fist to the romantic foolery of How to Use Guys With Secret Tips. Their new title, The Story of Yonosuke, swings to the lighter end of the scale as a gentle coming-of-age romantic drama. It is a recent film from director Shuichi Okita - still relatively new to the cinema world whose first full feature The Wonderful World was only released in 2006, but a rising star who won the Grand Prize at the Mito Short Film Festival in 2002 for his graduation short Pots and Friends and who met that earlier promise with the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2011 for his previous film, The Woodsman and the Rain. Okita has thus earned his laurels in domestic praise, but as The Story of Yonosuke (adapted from the novel by Shuichi Yoshida) is his only other film after The Woodsman and the Rain to see a wider release in the west, can that successfully be maintained and translated into overseas success, or will he remain with only limited parochial acclaim?
A generation ago in 1987, Yonosuke Yokomichi is just starting life at a university in Tokyo. Growing up in a seaside village in Kyushu, it's his first time in the big city and it's a little intimidating - uncertainty of the city around him an external reflection of how he's uncertain about his direction in life, and uncertain about what he himself is, too. Uncertainty, though, doesn't mean hesitation and if he doesn't know what to do at the moment then Yonosuke is eager to find out - that leads to a lot of fumbling and bumbling along the way, but in the course of it he bumps into many new friends and sights and has the talent for knocking things over, only to have them fall down just right.
The performance of lead Kengo Kora (who also had a role in The Woodsman and the Rain) as Yonosuke brings a great deal to the film - he credibly presents the character as a kid out of his depth but slowly maturing into confidence. You can comprehend him not as a twee feel-good plot device but as a genuine personality in his own right - you get so see how his awkwardness stemmed from his half-expected reactions to others calling him out on his peculiar name (a Western audience might not immediately recognise this, but it's made clear in dialogue so there's no difficulty picking it up) and how in early scenes he says that he's from the city of Nagasaki, which is only one small part of the large island of Kyushu, maybe because he's embarrassed by his rural origins. We can also easily get a sense of how he runs at a slightly different speed to others around him - he walks past some jobbing idols promoting a new gum and starts humming their song; he explores his new Tokyo bedsit by stretching out on the floor; when all the other students are utterly bored stiff by the droning university entrance ceremony he does his best to listen. The samba dancing that's seen a lot in the film's promotional material actually isn't all that big a part of the movie, only appearing in detail in one scene, but it gives him a way to train his body and serves to show that while Yonosuke may be a little awkward, he's no shut-in.
The action is largely set in the 1980s, but is separated into acts by occasional flash-forwards to the present day as Yonosuke's friends, after growing up and moving on, remember and reflect on how he helped to brighten their lives. These flash-forwards are initially a bit hard to spot and you may be a bit confused by them at first, particularly the first when we rejoin one of Yonosuke's friends as a married salaryman and he is completely unrecognisable from his college-age self to the extent that you wouldn't know it's the same character, but you learn how to change gears smoothly when the appearance of the ubiquitous mobile phones serves as a visual cue that we've switched times. The flash-forwards are also very important for ensuring that the movie doesn't descend into schmaltz, because Yonosuke is remembered not as a life-changing ministering angel, but as someone whose presence just happened to be a nudge in the right direction and a fond focus of a happy time - it's very believable.
The Story of Yonosuke is not quite all-ages; it's completely non-violent but there are a few sex references - there's a flash of male heinie in a public bath; Yonosuke insists on accompanying a friend on an evening walk, which leads to the surprising discovery that his friend is gay and on his way to Clapham Common; he helps out a classmate who's gotten someone pregnant; and he eventually asks his own girlfriend to stay over for the night, although it's done in a delightfully delicate dialogue which dances around the subject in an endearingly shy way.
I have mentioned in earlier paragraphs that there is a risk Yonosuke's friendly and untroubled adventures could come across as too twee, and it must be said that sometimes things are a bit too convenient for Yonosuke. In one scene he thinks he's going on a date with Shoko only to end up almost being abducted to Meet The Parents - her stern father plainly disapproves of this awkward dweeb presuming to approach his estimable daughter, but he rolls over and concedes to the relationship rather too easily. A good balance though is found towards the ending which grants these reflections and remembrances a peaceful, elegiac quality.
There are a number of interesting sequences in the movie - a long tracking shot of Yonosuke and his girlfriend Shoko playing in the snow is pretty, and has an interesting effect of him leaning in for a quick peck of a kiss while the camera is looking directly down on them from above, like the balls on Shoko's father's pool table; later, an older Shoko reminisces about Yonosuke while riding in a taxi and imagines their younger selves walking down the pavement at the side of the road; but for the most part the direction is fairly pedestrian and unadventurous, but works competently.
There is one odd detail - the film is called The Story of Yonosuke on the cover and in the promotional materials, but in the actual movie itself the title is subtitled A Story of Yonosuke instead (although the text itself just reads the character's name, Yonosuke Yokomichi). It might seem a trivial detail to focus on, but I do think that 'the' does have a subtle deleterious effect on your perception of the film. An indefinite article is better-suited to this movie, as it brings with it an unanchored, slightly whimsical feel that what we see if just one small part of Yonosuke's lively and vivacious life and there's more to tell that can't fit in the screen - as implied by the closing narration - whereas "the" boxes it in somewhat.
Overall, The Story of Yonosuke is not a radical movie, but succeeds well as a sweetly endearing coming-of-age drama that measures itself so as not to become too cloying. It is nostalgic, but rather than it being the insular played-out nostalgia of music and videogames it's the much more fulfilling nostalgia of the experiences we witnessed, all the while using its flash-forward mechanic effectively to show you that regardless of whether it lasted a year or a day, a touching time stays with you forever.