Are the Japanese more nostalgic than the rest of us? It’s hard to say, but here cinematic look-backs tend to be more bittersweet than in the West, especially films set in Tokyo, which was obliterated in World War II and has undergone several reincarnations in the six decades since.
My boyhood neighborhood in Ohio still resembles my 1950s memories (though the trees are bigger and the sidewalks look smaller); for boomers raised in Tokyo, though, the physical world of their childhoods has mostly vanished — only a few random corners and memories remain.
In 2005, Takashi Yamazaki, then known as a sci-fi and fantasy specialist (“Returner,” “Juvenile”), released “Always — 3-chome no Yuhi (Always — Sunset on Third Street — 2)” a warm-hearted ensemble drama, based on a comic by Ryohei Saigan, set in a 1958 neighborhood in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, then under construction.
In recreating the Tokyo of 50 years ago, Yamazaki and his CG staff had to rebuild the place from the ground — or rather pixels — up. Their attention to period detail was so meticulous that, for Japanese audiences, “Always” was as much a history theme park as a film, suffused in a golden glow like that of a Tohoscope color pic from the 1950s, lovingly preserved in a studio vault. Better, in other words, than the often dusty, smelly and jerry-built reality.
The story featured typical characters and incidents of the era — the fresh-faced girl from the countryside who comes to make her mark in the big city and the eagerly awaited arrival of the neighborhood’s first TV set. At the same time, the central characters, including a hot-tempered but good-natured auto-repair shop owner and a failed-novelist-cum-candyshop-proprietor, had a Dickensian vivacity and flair — they were caricatures, yes, but ones thoroughly, sympathetically alive. Audiences laughed at their foibles, wept at their crises — and made “Always” a ¥3.5-billion megahit. The film also won 12 of the 13 Japanese Academy Awards given that year, as well as many other honors.
A sequel was inevitable, so now we have “Always-zoku 3-chome no Yuhi (Always — Sunset on Third Street — 2),” but the new film is less a renovation of the old neighborhood than a revisit of familiar sights and faces. There are still crises to overcome, villains to defeat, but overall the film is more relaxed, episodic and even more frankly nostalgic than its predecessor. It’s similar to the way “David Copperfield” shifts from its hero’s early, heart-rending struggles as a child laborer to the more meandering later chapters about his loves, tribulations and successes as an adult.
Fans who loved the first film will enjoy this one as well, but newbies may feel as though they’ve wandered into the wrong school reunion — that is, disoriented, excluded and, if they stick around, bored.
As the film begins, the year is 1959 and Japan is about to begin a decade-long boom, fueled by construction for the just-announced Tokyo Olympics.
On third street, however, the novelist, Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), has all but given up his writing, as well as his dream of living together with his “adopted son,” Junnosuke (Kenta Suga) — a street kid he reluctantly took in, then came to love, and Hiromi (Koyuki), an earthy beauty who ran a bar where Chagawa was a regular — and something more. At the end of the first film (spoiler alert), Hiromi closed the bar and took a more lucrative job as a dancer in a burlesque club, leaving a despondent Chagawa behind.
Meanwhile, the garage owner, Norifumi Suzuki (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) has yet to achieve his goal of becoming a car-manufacturing magnate, though Rokko (Maki Horikita), the country girl, has become a great, if grease-stained, help around the shop. And his devoted wife, Tomoe (Hiroko Yakushimaru), and rambunctious son, Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu), are still the delights of his life (though the occasional targets of that ferocious temper).
The drama gets underway when Junnosuke’s birthfather, the wealthy, arrogant businessman Kawabata (Fumiyo Kohinata), arrives to claim him in a fancy foreign car (which the neighborhood folks gawk at and paw in awe and envy). Aroused from his slovenly despair by the boy’s frantic cries, Chagawa vows to give him a good life — and, after receiving Kawabata’s reluctant consent, begins to work in earnest on a novel he hopes will win a major prize and justify him in Kawabata’s — and everyone’s — eyes.
Meanwhile, the Suzuki family gets a new addition, Mika (Ayame Koike), a cousin whose failed-businessman single dad needs a temporary home for his spoiled daughter while he is working as a laborer on a new dam. Mika is appalled by the backwardness of her relatives — they only have one TV and no piano! And where are the servants when you need them?
There is more, including an awkward suitor for Rokko, a persistent would-be sugar daddy for Hiromi and an eccentric doctor (Tomokazu Miura) who tries to lure tanuki (a raccoon dog) out of their hiding places — and scares the bejeezus out of the local kids. The main plot thread, however, remains Chagawa’s struggle to succeed — and keep Junnosuke.
How many major Hollywood films, sequels especially, would make a weedy writer with a terrible haircut and appalling dress sense its hero — and have the whole neighborhood cheer him on? Maybe a 1930s Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart in the Chagawa role — but today, probably none, unless the writer turns out to be a serial killer. I wanted to cheer on Chagawa as well — Hideyuki Yoshioka’s performance goes beyond audience-pandering likability to true end-of-the-tether pathos and pain. I’ve seen many actors play frustrated writers, but Yoshioka best embodies the life-shortening exhaustion of grinding out a book — and the quiet triumph and happy relief when the completed manuscript is finally on the desk, ready to mail. Another Academy Award for this man, please.
For “Always 2″ itself, though, hold that Best Picture prize. Like reunions, the better ones, that is, its stirs up more warm, fuzzy memories than strong emotions. I did tear up at the end, though — because there’s more Chagawa in me than I want to admit.