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Yoshihiro Mori’s first feature, “We Couldn’t Become Adults,” is soaked in nostalgia for 1990s Tokyo.

The film meticulously revives not only the fashion, music and gadgets of that period — remember pagers? — but also its landmarks, including the then-new Tower Records in Shibuya and then-ultra-trendy Laforet department store in Harajuku. An in-demand director of music videos and TV commercials, Mori has filmed this story in a slick travel-magazine style — Tokyo has rarely looked so clean and uncluttered on screen — while keeping the emotions grounded in reality.

It is not, however, an updated version of Takashi Yamazaki’s “Always” trilogy (2005-12), which shamelessly sentimentalizes post-war Tokyo. Based on a 2016 novel by a former TV staffer who writes under the pen name Moegara, “We Couldn’t Become Adults” centers on a middle-aged man’s look back at his past loves and lost dreams, framed by his thankless labors at the margins of show business. The protagonist may be a product of his time and place, but his situation has a bittersweet universality, though it may help to be a man of a certain age to deeply relate to it.

We Couldn't Become Adults (Bokutachi wa Minna Otona ni Narenakatta)
Rating
Run Time 124 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing and streaming on Netflix

The film presents the opposite of a coming-of-age story’s upward arc, starting with a 46-year-old Makoto Sato (Mirai Moriyama), in the early days of the pandemic, working as a cog in the broadcasting industry and churning out graphics that are glimpsed for a moment and instantly forgotten. Then, the film steadily jumps back through the years to 1995, when a young Makoto was laboring in a sweets factory and dreaming of becoming a novelist.

The long voyage into the past begins when Makoto, walking home after a night of drunken revelry, comes across a corner in Shibuya where he last saw an old flame, Kaori Kato (Sairi Ito), in 1999. Although she promised to bring him CDs the next time they met, she instead walked out of his life.

In the reminiscences that follow, we see Makoto slaving away at work and screwing up relationships, including one with an ex-fiancee (Yuko Oshima) who storms out saying, “You’ve wasted my time.”

But we also see that he used to have genuine friendships — with a colleague named Kenta Sekiguchi (Masahiro Higashide), who resembles him in scruffiness and cynicism, and a factory coworker (Atsushi Shinohara), who carries a secret torch for him — as well as semblances of love with the troubled Korean-Japanese Soo (Sumire) and, most significantly, with Kaori.

With her unique style — hippie chic mixed with Harajuku cuteness — and her husky-voiced frankness, Kaori initially intimidates the shy Makoto. But when she tells him he is “not ordinary” — a high compliment coming from her — he begins to relax and reveal his true self. Then, work begins to take over his life and grind up his humanity.

Moriyama and Ito both deliver strongly individual, finely nuanced performances, just as they often have elsewhere. It’s a special joy to see Ito, usually relegated to supporting roles, bringing Kaori to life with such vibrancy and underlying pathos. And for Mori, “We Couldn’t Become Adults” is a brilliant debut. It not only lovingly reanimates the past, but starkly illuminates the sort of futureless lives many of Makoto’s generation are leading. Makoto himself? Let’s just say that, hopefully, his “adulthood” may still be ahead of him.

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