Plenty of Japanese directors make films about socially awkward or marginal guys: Given all the on-screen examples (as well as their many real-life inspirations), it seems that the onetime country of the samurai has become the land of the otaku and freeter (unemployed or underemployed), clasping to emotional childhood and/or the economic bottom rungs.
Shuichi Okita has also focused on nonmainstream men in his three features to date: the perfectionist Antarctic base-camp cook of 2009′s “Nankyoku Ryorinin (The Chef of South Polar),” the nervous tyro film director of 2011′s “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain)” and the eponymous hick hero of his latest, “Yokomichi Yonosuke (A Story of Yonosuke).” Okita may have his gentle if comically pointed fun with them, but ultimately he is more interested in their not-immediately-obvious strengths.
Also, despite their feel-good elements, his films are not simplistic crowd-pleasers. Instead Okita avoids obvious messages, while opting for methods that may be unusual in their indirectness but are never obscure.
Based on Shuichi Yoshida’s novel, “A Story of Yonosuke” marks a new advance in this line, announcing as it does a major plot point (which I will not detail) well before it occurs. Far from spoiling the film, however, this reveal gives everything that happens after (as well as before) a fresh resonance and poignancy. From a charming fish-out-of-water comedy about a country boy in the big city emerges a smartly made drama that asks — and eloquently answers — one of the biggest questions of all: What do our lives really mean to those around us? How can one person have an impact, especially if he hardly seems to have a clue?
We first meet our hero, Yonosuke (Kengo Kora), as a college freshman in Tokyo in the go-go 1980s, when riches beyond the dreams of avarice seemed not only a fantasy but a national destiny. Fresh from a small town in Nagasaki Prefecture, he comes across as a typical comic naif, but Yonosuke’s mix of uncalculating niceness and unshakable self-confidence make him an original, as well as unexpectedly successful at the social game.
Together with two classmates, a puppy-dog-eager guy (Sosuke Ikematsu) he meets at the graduation ceremony and a cute, friendly girl (Aki Asakura) who approaches him in class, he joins the university samba club and quickly finds his niche (if not a sense of rhythm). Flash forward two decades to his new friends, now a married couple, reminiscing about Yonosuke. What is going on here?
Rather than fill us in right away, the film soon returns us to the youthful career of our hero. Yonosuke befriends the cool, impeccably fashionable Kato (Go Ayano), who at first rebuffs his advances, but who succumbs to his borderline-obnoxious if well-meant tenacity. He is also recruited by the sexy, sophisticated Chiharu (Ayumi Ito), a sort of high-class hooker at the hotel where is Yonosuke is working part-time as a bellboy, to help her fend off an importunate client.
His most significant encounter, however, is with Shoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka), a prototypical bubble-era ojōsama — that is, the carefully sheltered daughter of a filthy-rich family — who is as blithely unworldly in her way as Yonosuke is in his. She at first treats him as an amusing discovery for the delectation of her wised-up pals, but starts to see him differently when he rescues her from a mishap in the family pool. Love begins to bloom across the culture/status chasm.
Working from Shiro Maeda’s script, Okita makes Yonosuke’s leap across this chasm something more than a comic stunt, without doing violence to his innocent essence. He also has the perfect Yonosuke in Kora, who appeared as the slacker son of the lumberjack hero in “The Woodsman and the Rain” as well as an expedition member in “The Chef of South Polar.” Often cast in other directors’ films as troubled, even violent types, Kora effortlessly makes the stretch to comedy for Okita, without sacrificing his trademark intensity and focus.
Despite his verbal stumbles and social fumbles, his Yonosuke never becomes merely contemptible. Instead, he charms with his sheer brass (as well as his never-commented-upon sharp good looks).
He also takes an unaffected delight in this world and its flawed inhabitants that gives Okita’s delightful film a warming glow — and a lingering echo when it ends. Which is about the most, finally, any of us can hope for.