Film / Reviews

'Strawberry Song': Reuniting is such sweet sorrow

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Kota (Yutaro Furutachi) is a bit of an odd one: the type of grinning, hyperactive character you might label a lovable eccentric. He lives with just a few cats for company, and works at a frozen food factory where he’s treated with affection by the mostly middle-aged staff.

When the July 7 Tanabata “star festival” rolls around, his co-workers tease him about making a wish for a girlfriend, and Kota — who’s in his mid-20s but still a novice in such affairs — gets all flustered. But that evening, he bumps into former classmate Chika (Shizuka Ishibashi), the girl whom he and best pal Shinji used to pine after at school, and his dreams seem to have come true.

That they’re meeting on the anniversary of Shinji’s death is a coincidence too perfect to pass up on, and after an amiable evening where Kota does most of the talking, they agree to meet again on the same day the following year.

Strawberry Song (Ichigo no Uta)
Rating
Run Time 114 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens JuLY 5

While this may sound like a Japanese remake of Lone Scherfig’s “One Day” (2011), it’s actually adapted from a novel by veteran screenwriter Yoshikazu Okada, based on songs by punk-rockers Ging Nang Boyz. The band features prominently on the soundtrack, and frontman Kazunobu Mineta — who illustrated the original book — has a supporting role as the owner of the rundown ramen joint where Kota and Chika meet.

The film is set in Koenji, Tokyo’s onetime punk heartland, though music acts as a lubricant for the story, rather than its main driving force, in the form of a battered iPod that gets passed around between the characters.

While Kota’s affection for Chika is clear from their first reunion, her feelings are harder to read. Although it’s clear that Shinji’s death has bound them together in some way, the details are only gradually revealed in flashbacks, eventually spilling out during a midpoint soliloquy that Ishibashi delivers with palpable anguish.

“Strawberry Song” is a more offbeat proposition than Okada’s recent screenwriting work on mainstream weepies “Snow Flower” (2019) and “The 8-Year Engagement” (2017), but it never quite finds the right balance between quirkiness and convention. The comedy is often awkward, and not in a way that seems intentional. When the characters share a laugh — which happens a lot — it underscores how few chuckles the film is managing to raise by itself.

I kept waiting to see if Kota’s peculiarities would turn out to be his way of dealing with earlier trauma, especially given how the other characters seem to be tiptoeing around him all the time. But there’s nothing that complex going on in the film’s psychology: he’s just a kook with a big heart and limited social graces.

Chika is more intriguing, and after her big soul-baring moment, it’s frustrating that the film doesn’t spend more time focusing on her. Ishibashi is far and away the best thing here, and her naturalness helps take the edge off Furutachi’s manic performance.

The musician-turned-actor plays Kota like an anime character made flesh, all bulging eyes and wildly exaggerated gestures. Some viewers may find him entertaining; I found him almost unwatchable, and wished that director Shintaro Sugawara — a TV veteran making his feature debut — had done more to temper his excesses.

The film hits some poignant notes along the way, but if “Strawberry Song” was a band, I’d suggest it find a different singer.