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‘Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Eté)’

Casting off expectations to seek their own futures

by Mark Schilling

Compared to his avant-garde French new-wave peers, Eric Rohmer seemed to direct in a lighter, more conventional key: All those casually chic young heroines photographed in the more attractive parts of France, all those stories about their various love troubles. Also, from a Hollywood perspective, his characters talk too much and his stories ramble too long. But for fans, including me, his films adroitly reveal, rather than bluntly expose, the complexities and perversities of the human animal. Those long, naturalistic conversations turn out to have a deeper purpose than displaying the charms of the characters.

Rohmer disciple Koji Fukada pays homage to the master in his summer-at-the-beach drama “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Eté),” right down to a French title that references Rohmer’s 1996 film “Conte d’Eté (A Summer’s Tale).”

And yet this film, winner of the best film prize at the Nantes Three Continents Festival and the best director award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, is hardly a cut-and-paste job. Scripted by Fukada himself, it feels believably Japanese enough, though its characters are the thin slice of folks here who can take longish summer vacations — including the title heroine, Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido), who has failed her university entrance exams and is girding for another try, and her aunt Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta), a university professor who is house-sitting for her sister (Makiko Watanabe) at a seaside town.

It also tells a meticulously constructed story that feels unmediated, like a day at the beach that unwinds according to whim rather than plan.

The overarching theme, however, is clear enough, being the various stories we construct about ourselves and others — and the consequences when those stories are questioned or revealed to be lies. Sakuko is among the more persistent questioners, though she is also content to listen and observe. She is honest to a fault, while being tolerant of others’ silences and obfuscations, as 18-year-old truth-tellers are not always prone to be. The film may be about her coming of age, but she is also its wise-beyond-her-years center of gravity.

Around that center revolve Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi), Mikie’s former boyfriend, who manages a business-cum-love hotel in town, as well as his daughter Tatsuko (Kiki Sugino), a cynical college student who waits tables at a beach-side cafe, and his tightly coiled nephew Takashi (Taiga), who evacuated from Fukushima after 3/11 but dropped out of high school and is now working for Ukichi at the hotel.

Then, just as Sakuko is becoming friends with the shy, straight-talking Takashi, he reunites with a willowy former classmate (Ena Koshino) and the attraction between the two is too obvious for Sakuko to ignore. Also, a celebrity professor (Tadashi Otake) visits Mikie, with whom he has been having an affair, but Tatsuko approaches him after one of his lectures. Once they are alone in his car, she cheekily grills him about his love life and one thing, as they say, leads to another.

The potential for comedy in these and other romantic/erotic situations is certainly there, but Fukada is more interested in the pain the characters feel as their hopes are dashed, masks are removed and bad memories are revived. He is less interested, however, in labeling them as heroes or villains, though he is not averse to making the loathsome look ridiculous.

As we know it must, the story comes down to an adventure Sakuko and Takashi embark on together, as they search for something beyond the structures and strictures imposed by family and society. What they are really looking for, we see, is a clue to their future; especially Takashi, who has come to hate his assigned role as “nuclear victim.”

As Sakuko, Nikaido again shows why she is among the best young actors now working. Instead of the standard pouting princess or moody rebel, she creates a more interesting character whose big, inquisitive eyes take in everything but give away little, who pays attention to others but goes her own way.

More troubled, and for good reason, is Taiga’s Takashi, who rejects easy sympathy, however well intentioned the source. Like Sakuko, he is an outsider, though one more dependent on the kindness of the adult world — and more determined to break free from its corrupting embrace.

So who’s movie is it, anyway — Sakuko’s or Takashi’s (or both)? The film resists answering this question decisively, while refusing to build to a big, tie-it-all-together climax, romantic or otherwise. This may create an impression of third-act drift, but as certain revelations are made and confidences are exchanged, we see that Sakuko has learned something that will make this summer more than just bike rides and beach walks and a bit of a crush on a younger guy.

This being a Rohmer-esque film, that something can’t be summed up in a word. One takeaway: Even lovers of truth need secrets.