Tuesday, October 28, 2008

REVIEW: April Story - Shunji Iwai (1998)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I’d read a bit about Shunji Iwai’s 1998 film “April Story (Shigatsu Monogatari)” and I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t looking forward to watching it. While I loved Iwai’s follow up film to this one, 2001’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou”, I hadn’t been a real fan of his other films, and the thought of a romance about a young woman from Hokkaido who follows her unrequited high school crush by enrolling in the same university he is attending just didn’t thrill me. I’m not fond of Asian “drama” films (ie: hyper-dramatic, emotionally manipulative Harlequin stories) and that’s how “April Story” has been pitched. Regardless, I popped it into the DVD player to have a look, and ultimately I’m glad I did.

Instead of watching the young woman, Nireno (played by “The Hidden Blade’s” Takako Matsu) sigh and bat her eyelashes at a hunky young man for the whole film Iwai chooses to show us Nireno’s first fledgling steps as she leaves home. The first frame of the film is a shot of the actress’s real family bidding her farewell at a snowy train station and from there we follow her on her journey to independence. No mention is made as to why Nireno has chosen to attend a university so far from her home. The director just shows us (with gentle humor) Nireno trying to help the movers squeeze all of her possessions into her tiny apartment, giving small gifts to her new neighbours like any polite young Japanese woman would, stopping into a local bookstore for some reading material, even catching an old samurai film to kill some time, all things that seem so inconsequential, but that seem pregnant with freedom and possibility for someone who’s living on their own for the first time.

When she starts school she’s befriended by a sullen young woman, Saeko, who even though she has problems remembering her name encourages Nireno to join the fishing club, which Nireno does simply to try something new. It isn’t until one afternoon when Saeko asks if Nireno has a boyfriend does her back story comes to light; how her high school crush enrolled at this university and is working in the bookstore she frequents. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say it’s happy, but as someone in their mid-30’s watching it I knew that it ultimately didn’t matter what the outcome of Nireno’s romance was. Young love is intense, but it burns out quickly. What was important and interesting was whether or not she stays interested in fishing, or whether she becomes friends with her shy neighbour who she invites over for dinner, or whether or not she remains close to her family who live at the other end of the country. She may have decided to go to school in Tokyo for a boy, but as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

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