Japan Cuts Review: A Story of Yonosuke (2013) – Essential Viewing
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema which runs from July 11-21. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
Okita Shuichi’s latest is a touching and affectionate work on a year in the life of a young man, Yokomichi Yonosuke (Kora Kengo), set during Japan’s bubble economy. The year in question is 1987, Yonosuke’s first year in college in Tokyo. What at first glance seems unwieldy and narratively all over the place, made all the more so by the film’s lengthy running time, is actually a very structured look at Yonosuke and the memories of him by those who had met and known him during that year of 1987, however briefly. The film consists of four large movements, each one bracketed by a scene or two in the present with someone who had known Yonosuke. In his past films Okita has presented a (male) collective or duo as the main character, but here he focuses specifically on one character amongst an ensemble cast. This film also marks the first time that Okita has worked with previously existing material, Yoshida Shuichi’s 2009 novel Yokomichi Yonosuke. But the pairing of Okita and Yoshida could not have yielded a more splendid result, with Yonosuke a continuation of the eccentric male character for which Okita is becoming known. Eccentric but endearing, moving, and absolutely memorable, just like the film itself.
…the pairing of Okita and Yoshida could not have yielded a more splendid result, with Yonosuke a continuation of the eccentric male character for which Okita is becoming known. Eccentric but endearing, moving, and absolutely memorable, just like the film itself.
Yonosuke, by all accounts and purposes, has an ordinary, even uneventful, life. Though he sometimes comes off as socially awkward, his intentions are always sincere, such as encountering his first college friendship with the over-excited Kuramochi (Ikematsu Sosuke), meeting his first female classmate Akutsu (Asakura Aki), and checking out the different extracurricular clubs on campus. The film’s first movement thus paints Yonosuke as a fish out of water, a Nagasaki boy who has arrived in big city Tokyo to live on his own in a small apartment unit and go to university (echoing writer Yoshida’s experiences). Yet just when the spectator is falling into the narrative rhythm of the three above-mentioned characters and their friendship, the film shifts to what appear to be a whole new set of characters. And then when one of them mentions the ‘Internet,’ one realises that the film has moved to the early 2000s and the characters are Kuramochi and Akutsu, who got together during college and are now recalling Yonosuke. And then just as quickly, the film returns to 1987 and Yonosuke.
The next movement involves Yonosuke’s friendship with Kato (Ayano Go), which brings about his friendship with Shoko (Yoshitaka Yuriko). Once again, the events and experiences recounted are practically ordinary: Kato and Yonosuke striking up a friendship, going on a double date—which leads to Shoko’s appearance in Yonosuke’s life. Even the scene of Kato coming out to Yonosuke and the latter’s reaction (or lack thereof) are made underwhelming. But with each subsequent movement that continues with Yonosuke’s life during 1987, the film becomes increasingly populated with details that link back to previous movements and characters, so that the movements are not temporal vacuums but overlapping snapshots of Yonosuke’s life and, by extension, Japan’s economic salad days before the bubble burst.
The third movement sees Yonosuke visit his family and hometown and his friendship with Shoko turn into something more. Reuniting with his hometown friends, hanging out at the beach, visiting his grandmother, and finding his parents enthralled with Shoko, Okita lets things unfurl unhurriedly to bask in their present-ness. At this point, if not earlier, the spectator may wonder, ‘Why Yonosuke, why 1987, why his freshman year, why this unhurried pace? But over and above the obvious allegorical reading of the country’s fall from grace with the burst of the bubble economy only a few years later at the start of the 1990s, through the accumulation of detail and the close attachment to Yonosuke’s experiences, Okita makes tangible Yonosuke’s life simply for what it is. Not only his life but the flow of life and what it brings with it in terms of relationships, friendships, and moments that impact the kind of person one wants to be and with whom one wants to live. Basic questions, really, but also very complex. In this regard, one will recall Nakashima Tetsuya’s Memories of Matsuko (2006), also eclectic and of multiple narrative movements that narrate Matusko’s life. But A Story of Yonosuke is more diffuse, unmelodramatic, unassuming, and so all the more emotionally surprising.
…one will recall Nakashima Tetsuya’s Memories of Matsuko (2006), also eclectic and of multiple narrative movements that narrate Matusko’s life. But A Story of Yonosuke is more diffuse, unmelodramatic, unassuming, and so all the more emotionally surprising.
As it goes along, it becomes more touching ever so subtly and unexpectedly, with the last movement the most tender and bittersweet, like the memory of first love because essentially it captures just that: Yonosuke and Shoko’s youthful, playful friendship and romance, the idea and thrill of two people just hitting it off because of—and not despite—their eccentricities. The film’s most touching scenes—though some would describe as sappy, but who cares—are to be found here, especially Yonosuke and Shoko’s Christmas dinner at his apartment. The warm cocoon of being with someone completely free of reserve, guardedness, or affectation, and then snow falling! This last section of the film also contains one of the most amusing scenes, that of Yonosuke and Shoko admitting their romantic fondness for each other, with the latter trying to melt herself into a curtain while doing so out of overwhelming emotion and shyness. Also delightfully surprising are the superb performances of young actors Kora and Yoshitaka: Kora finally gets the spotlight from Okita, who has continually cast him in all of his features, deservedly so, and Yoshitaka would have stolen all of Kora’s thunder if Kora had not met her lightness and earnestness halfway. Together, they are kind of electrifying.
If you will allow yourself to be charmed, even moved, A Story of Yonosuke is like a sad fairy tale of the last segment of youth that is the first year of college and other possible firsts and lasts, beyond plunging headlong into adulthood.