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‘Always San-Chome no Yuhi ’64 (Always: Sunset on Third Street 3)’

Japan's good old days airbrushed to cartoonish perfection

by Mark Schilling

The “Always” films, unabashedly sentimental, meticulously realized reminiscences on the Tokyo of the Showa 30s (1955-1965), are intended for the domestic audience only. But the first two received high audience poll numbers when they screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, which I help program. And it wasn’t just because the director, the personable Takashi Yamazaki, was there to take his bows.

Despite the cartoonish performances and the insider references to pop-culture phenomena that are obscure to foreigners, the Italian audience laughed, cried and loudly applauded. When I tell this to local industry types, they are understandably skeptical. By conventional box-office logic, these films should be about as exportable as natto (fermented soy beans).

But in telling the stories of folks living in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, when it was still a shining symbol of postwar resurgence and hope, Yamazaki hits big emotional notes with a Dickensian directness and confidence (if not artistry). Also, like the first half of “David Copperfield,” the “Always” films take what is essentially a child’s point of view. Their world is more highly colored than the gray, gritty reality of the time, while the adults loom larger than life, assuming the forms of angels or, occasionally, demons. In this primal setting, the usual cultural barriers dissolve.

This is also true, in spades, of the series’ third entry, “Always San-Chome no Yuhi ’64 (Always: Sunset on Third Street 3),” which is set in the year of the Tokyo Olympics. A youthful Japan is bursting with energy and optimism, buying cars, color TVs and the latest imported fad, electric guitars, as though there was no tomorrow.

Folks in the san-chome neighborhood are also prospering as the film begins, including the short-fused Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the owner of a small auto-repair shop, and his ever-patient wife, Tomoe (Hiroko Yakushimaru), as well as the ever-frazzled Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a children’s serial-story writer and candy-store proprietor, and his lovely bar-proprietress bride, Hiromi (Koyuki). Suzuki is the proud owner of a new color TV, besting Chagawa’s recently bought black and white model.

But changes are also afoot that threaten the stability of their cozy little world. Suzuki’s smart-mouthed son Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu) becomes infatuated with American electric-guitar music and Mutsuko (Maki Horikita), the shop’s sweet-faced, pure-hearted apprentice, starts dating a young doctor (Mirai Moriyama) who sports the latest Ivy League fashions and may have dubious intentions. Meanwhile, the publisher of Chagawa’s stories threatens to dump him in favor of a popular new rival, upsetting his plan to send his brilliant adopted son Junnosuke (Kenta Suga) to college and to support the baby Hiromi will soon deliver.

Acquaintance with the first two films is recommended, if not essential, for enjoyment of “Always 3.” There is no mystery, though, as to how the various plot lines will unfold: Even the film’s Norman Rockwell-esque poster contains a spoiler. Also, after two outings, Suzuki’s volcanic outbursts and Chagawa’s chronic complaining, as well as the foibles of the other central characters, have become familiar indeed.

That said, effects maestro Yamazaki has again created a visual environment so rich in period detail, offered up for closer (and not eye-straining) inspection in 3-D, that even the more manga-esque characters feel firmly grounded in their era. Of course, the darker realities of the 1960s boom years, from the worsening air pollution to the turbulent protests against the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, are mostly scrubbed out; but for Japanese Baby Boomers nostalgic for the Tokyo of their childhoods, the airbrushed visuals will probably inspire more sighs of fond recognition than quibbles about accuracy.

As a Boomer who wasn’t here for the film’s peak year (I showed up a little over a decade later, after the boom had ended), “Always 3″ is something like a flashback to an alternative life both comfortingly familiar (the American pop tunes and the madras shirts) and passingly strange, since nearly everyone, in manga fashion, neither grows nor changes. (Mutsuko’s Aomori accent, for example, is as thick as the day she arrived in Tokyo.)

One exception is Suga as Junnosuke, a mature-beyond-his-years teen who is the film’s most fully realized and well-acted character. His central conflict, between his manga artist aspirations and Chagawa’s desire that he study for a safe, conventional future, is played with all stops out, however, similar to the more maudlin second-half moments of “David Copperfield.”

But at the end I misted up, just as I did for “Always” (2005) and “Always 2″ (2007). And I’m sure that, for one last time, the Udine audience will join me.