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Shuichi Okita is one of the few Japanese directors working today who has an immediately recognizable style, though it’s less a matter of camera angles than his way of looking at the world. A wry observational humor runs through his work, combined with a warm but unsentimental humanism.

His films may get tagged as quirky comedies, but they are grounded in universal human issues, from facing your fears of failure (“The Woodsman and the Rain”) to finding your place in the world, however small (“Mori, the Artist’s Habitat”). And in contrast to the darkness of so much of serious Japanese cinema, Okita’s work exudes a gentle optimism: His characters are good people who may not always win but do not go down in bitter defeat. Like many of us, they muddle along.

“One Summer Story” is Okita’s first in the ever-popular, if formula-ridden, seishun eiga (youth film) genre, and it is very much his own take, though his story is based on Retto Tajima’s 2014 manga series of the same Japanese title (“Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai”).

One Summer Story (Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai)
Rating
Run Time 138 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

His protagonist, Minami Sakuta (Moka Kamishiraishi), belongs to the high school swim team and is obsessed with an anime series called “Buffalo Koteko is the Magical Plasterer.” (Yes, “plasterer” — this may be the only anime ever that features construction materials as characters.) Her easygoing stepdad (Kanji Furutachi) also loves the show; they even sing the theme song together as her tolerant mom (Yuki Saito) tries to rein in her rambunctious younger brother. Your typical dysfunctional family they are not.

Minami finds out that her classmate, a talented calligrapher named Shohei Moji (Kanata Hosoda), is also a fan of the show. The pair instantly form a bond and romance seems set to bloom when Minami decides to embark on a search for her biological father, who left when she was a small child but lingers in her mind as a mystery in need of solving. She enlists the help of Shohei’s transgender brother, Akihiro (Yudai Chiba), a smart and sympathetic, if unconventional, private investigator.

The story belatedly kicks into gear when Minami, who has told her parents that she is at summer camp, finally tracks down her dad (Etsushi Toyokawa), the recently resigned leader of a religious cult. This being an Okita film, the father-daughter reunion does not result in recriminations about old wrongs — the go-to development in many a Japanese drama. Instead, Minami and her dad, now upfront about his inadequacies as a guru and a parent, bond in ways that feel right to their contrary natures and respective pasts.

Playing Minami, Kamishiraishi checks none of the usual boxes for seishun eiga heroines. Instead of scowling like a teen rebel, she giggles uncontrollably at anything she finds odd, including her earnest swim team coach’s vocal tic (which the subtitles translate as “capeesh,” making him sound like a character in “The Sopranos”). A true original, Kamishiraishi lights up any scene she’s in.

As her father, Toyokawa is charismatic and enigmatic in equal measure, if with an air of rueful loneliness that recalls the great Chishu Ryu at the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, “Late Spring.” Be prepared to shed a tear — and learn the lyrics to the “Magical Plasterer” song.

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