The Quiet Tale
As you follow the story of a young girl in a new city, discover a truly superb film about new beginnings of all kinds
'Slice of life'. What the hell does that even mean, anyway? So many films, novels, and television shows have been dubbed as thus that almost any piece of contemporary fiction could be labeled in this fashion. When I think of 'slice of life', I don't think of any elaborate plots, outrageous characters, or bizarre situations. Almost boringly, I think of the more memorable parts of the daily life experience, and of the capturing of certain moments in life that we might encounter.
The thing is that this focus doesn't always work for most fiction. It takes a certain level of aesthetic attention, an ear for musical accompaniment, amazing actors, an intense attention to detail, and some luck in order for a 'slice of life' film to actually be any good. When successful, a director actually brings together all of these subtle aspects of daily life and projects them with both clarity and meaning.
April Story is that kind of movie.
April is when the spring blossoms in Japan fall, signifying the new rebirth of life. April signifies the beginning of the new Japanese school year. April Story, appropriately, deals with both these subjects, following the quiet adventures of a girl from Hokkaido adjusting to a new college life in Tokyo. Here, the beautiful yet awkward state of silence is the shining center of this short film by Shunji Iwai.
The film captures the essential loneliness and initial solitude of those first weeks in a new life, brought into the celluloid by the quietly struggling Uzuki Nireno, performed with incredible subtlety by Takako Matsu, who Japanese drama fans will recognize from the long-popular TV drama Long Vacation. Matsu shines in this role, a strong testament to her acting style, as the role demands not heart-wrenching drama, but the shy struggle of daily existence. Unlike Iwai's other films, there are no big events, no plot twists, and no conflicts between the characters. What little plot that exists serves only as a space to drive Uzuki into a place where she can really start to mature and grow up, to overcome her shyness actively, and to find a new way to experience life, outside of her former daily stasis.
The film opens with her family seeing her off to college, taking the trains from the rural Hokkaido to the turbulent Tokyo, already signifying Uzuki to be too withdrawn to easily fit into a new social, school, and daily life. The film follows Uzuki as she deals with her first few weeks at college, going through all of the seemingly mundane aspects of life, such as greeting your neighbors, joining a school club, and exploring the city around you. It's more than a bit awkward; Uzuki's journey through this transition period is hard and confusing, forcefully brought out by Iwai's direction, which emphasizes those weird interactions she has with the new people around her. This remains the complete focus of the film, sacrificing the basic film tenants of continual motion and evolving plot for more of an extremely poignant character study of the hardships that one endures when placed into a foreign situation. Above all, this film does not serve to tell so much of a story, but as much as to convey a certain emotion and experience, a trial that anyone who drastically changes their daily landscape will experience and sympathize. It is incredibly melancholy, filled with homesickness, and the dread of possible failure.
This is not to say that this film lacks any sort of structure, or any sort of story to go with it. Iwai still engages us with little, tiny mysteries throughout the short course of the piece. An important journey is repeated throughout the film, the almost daily travel by bike that Uzuki makes to a non-local bookstore. Uzuki's only college friend, the bizarre Saeko Sano, in her attempt to get Uzuki out of her shell, and to explore her own interests, coerces Uzuki to join, of all things, a Fly-Fishing Club, which gives birth to a great set of scenes of a bunch of college kids standing in a field, casting fishing rods into the air.
Uzuki's exploration of Tokyo is important as a signifier of her own growth. The first encounter with a street band, being crudely almost harassed at an old-school samurai film house, and her almost failed attempts at starting a relationship with her neighbors are all symbols of her inner change being expressed outwardly. Two conflicting emotions in Uzuki's life come through- while she starts to grow out, she's also hampered by a great fear of her new life, experiences, the city, and people alike. Iwai enhances the awkward situations that Uzuki finds herself by utilizing silence with shots that almost make you queasy, communicating her weird attempts at making connections.
You root for her. You pray for some sort of success or understanding, because you've been through something like that. April Story is adept at conveying that sort of nostalgia that's not totally yours, yet strikes that chord of a certain moment in time that you have experienced.
Especially when the realization comes that this character who seemed so withdrawn and resistant to change and life, takes a risky dive into a new life to pursue a dream, no matter how childish or potentially unattainable it may be. While she considered her future past high school, she decided to pull a Felicity, to pursue entrance to a university where an old crush was now attending. Before she starts her new life in Tokyo, a friend informs her of a certain bookstore where her old crush works, thus revealing late in the film the reason she frequents this out-of-the-way locale.
The final scene in the movie, however, is where the heart of the piece reveals itself in brilliant colors. Uzuki's crush eventually remembers her from high school, leaving Uzuki surprised, bereft of any way to really deal with the realization she had awaited. Uzuki bikes away in the heavy summer rain, being too scared initially to accept an umbrella from the concerned Yamazaki. Inspiration hits, courage strikes, so she borrows an umbrella from a stranger, just to run back to the bookstore to borrow one from Yamazaki. It's tiny, it's small, and anywhere else, it would seem completely inconsequential. Here however, it becomes infused with meaning and emotion. In this short scene in the rain, Uzuki finally comes out of her shell, suggesting a possible future for these two hometown kids.
Iwai's cinematic gift in this film is the opening of cramped urban landscapes into an almost fairy-tale domain. The moving truck drives through the streets of Tokyo as the sakura fall from the trees, signifying not only a refreshing beauty in contrast to the snows of the North, but an obvious metaphor to the new beginning Uzuki is embarking on. The visuals of April Story congregate most appealingly in those places where the outside and the inside collide. Confusing, I know. Many shots, especially those when Uzuki is moving into her apartment, utilize the natural light to create an awkward, yet new feeling atmosphere. Take the shot of the students standing around her, casting their rods into the grassy fields, an odd shot that drives home how urban it all is, yet it utilizes a very non-urban activity to illustrate it. Or at the end of the film, as Uzuki avoids the rain, how Iwai frames the shots of the building stoops, the bookstore front, and the people looking out of the office buildings to the rain outside, painting the wet city in a natural, beautiful landscape.
April Story continues Iwai's film tradition of a shoujo-tinged experience. By displaying the details of daily experiences, keeping the focus on how a single girl deals with a new life, and by maintaining a high level of artistic integrity, Iwai once again creates a successful, moving film, displaying not only a steady style, but also a flexibility in dealing with different kinds of films, stories, and characters, without making it feel overused. This film might be the quietest way to spend an hour, but that's not a bad thing. It is a miracle.