|Photo: Third Window Films
We could confront this issue with any number of films, but seems apt to bring to flag it in relation to A Story of Yonosuke. Falling just shy of 160 minutes, it is indeed a pretty epic proposition for what is a quite modest character study. Okita is no stranger to dabbling in extended running times, though - his previous two films A Chef of South Polar and Woodsman in the Rain were both excellent, but equally guilty of padding here and there. So an inability to kill his darlings is something of an auterial trait for the director, but impressively here he more or less manages to justify spending so much time in the company of innocent, charming and sometimes amusingly naive Yonosuke (Kengo Kara).
That's not to say the film doesn't drift leisurely around at its own pace. It very much does - ambling from one subplot to the next and back again whenever it feels like it. Prepare yourself accordingly. But it also doesn't feel like there is much waste or surplus material. I watched it a day before See You Tomorrow, Everyone! (review to follow), and honestly Yoshihiro Nakamura's decade hopping portrait of one boy in the projects felt like an altogether longer experience despite weighing in a full forty minutes less than Yonosuke.
Look at me: I've ironically rambled on for three paragraphs about length. What, you frustratedly ask, is this Story of a boy called Yonosuke like? Well, an introduction prior to the screening suggested it resembled a Japanese Forrest Gump, and that's both a semi-accurate and rather misleading descriptor. It does primarily focus on college freshman Yonosuke's encounters with some fellow students, and the effect the various relationships have on everyone involved. In the film's most distinct and sparsely used trick, the film often briefly flashes forward Yonosuke's acquaintances - now fast approaching middle-age (the film is predominantly set in 1987/88) - reflecting on their time with their old chum. It's a touching way of reminding us all about those friends that have long since gone their separate ways, and the film manages to achieve some genuine poignancy and insight while narrowly avoiding excessive sentimentality.
The film does, after maybe an hour or so, settle on its primary focus (apt, maybe, for a film where characters are constantly struggling to determine their own majors and interests). Hyperactive Shoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Yonosuke on a double date, and she quickly displays a very strong interest in our unintentionally amusing, eccentric protagonist. But in their own respective way the pair are shy & emotionally distant, so they spend a vast majority of the film wondering if their relationship is one of friendship or romance.
It could have been standard rom-com stuff, but both are strongly defined and likeable fictional individuals, and the old 'will-they-won't-they' keeps us reasonably interested. To the credit of screenwriter Shiro Maeda (working from a novel by Shuichi Yoshida), the film generally manages to sidestep the generic waters it treads. There are times that threaten to overdose on quirk - one lengthy comedic sequence sees Shoko hiding behind a curtain as Yonosuke struggles to expresses his feelings - but again the spirited delivery and generous, irresistible senses of wit & humour makes everything gel together cohesively. The final stretch is the only perhaps misjudged note, spending time describing events we could have worked out for ourselves without much effort (strange, since Okita trusts us to navigate many other developments with only hints and ambiguities carefully placed here & there). But the conclusion of Shoko and Yonosuke's story - delivered primarily in the flash-fowards - is a satisfying one that avoids the temptation of a simplistic happy ending for a more emotionally complex, thematically resonant one.
Okita, then, once again proves himself one of Japan's most reliable & accessible filmmakers (remaining largely unknown in the West, despite the fact that his films would no doubt resonate with a wide audience if given half a chance). He's also no slouch in the directorial department, very much in control of his images (there's a gorgeous snowy Christmas scene, complete with a giddily swooping camera) and correctly conservative & reserved when it comes to music cues. He has also lost none of his ability to stage a damn good joke, ones so strong even translation cannot lose them. Yes, the film is shamelessly relaxed in terms of pace, happy to chase tangents and leave scenes to play out leisurely. But Okita ensures spending almost three hours experiencing A Story of Yonosuke is a justifiable, worthwhile proposition.