NEW YORK – At its North American premiere, director Takashi Yamazaki’s acclaimed film “Always — Sunset on Third Street” (“Always — Sanchome no Yuhi”) was met with enthusiastic applause from the New York audience.
The reaction demonstrated that a film about life in a close-knit Tokyo neighborhood in 1958 can also resonate with American audiences, underscoring that nostalgia for simpler times is universal.
Yamazaki talked about making the film and its unexpected success — it won 12 Japan Academy Awards out of 13 nominations — before its premiere at the Japan Society.
Born in 1964, five years after the film takes place, the director, previously known for his talent with computer-generated special effects, wanted to explore his memories of growing up in the postwar Showa Era through the making of “Always.”
Making the film was also a way for Yamazaki to thank producer Shuji Abe, whom he had worked with before. Abe repeatedly told Yamazaki he wanted to make a movie about the early postwar era and wanted him to direct it because of his special-effects skills.
“Only you can re-create the look of the Showa Era,” the producer told him.
Based on a popular “manga” comic by Ryohei Saigan, the script, written by Yamazaki, revolves around a colorful cast of neighbors.
They include Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a struggling children’s writer who takes in orphan Junnosuke Furuyuki; Norifumi Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the owner of a small auto repair shop, and his family.
The story unfolds in an imaginary district of downtown Tokyo during a time of postwar optimism.
Throughout the film, the residents look out at the famous orange-and-white Tokyo Tower under construction, which serves as a symbol of the optimism and hope for the future they all share.
Yamazaki chose the theme of “ninjo,” loosely defined as humanity and simply caring for other people, as the predominant theme in “Always” because it is an emotion anyone can relate to.
“Ninjo is universal. It’s a sensation that you have deep inside. Sometimes you feel happy, but you miss something at the same time,” Yamazaki said. “It’s a sort of nostalgia.”
All the characters in the film display a deep sense of ninjo, whether it is with the self-absorbed Chagawa, who goes through a remarkable transformation as he learns to care for Junnosuke, or even a touching scene as the Suzukis buying a TV and the entire neighborhood excitedly gathering in their living room for the first viewing.
The director said he had been surprised by the film’s success — he had already prepared excuses for explaining the film’s failure, he said jokingly.
He attributed the film’s success to the highly material and increasingly isolated lives modern Japanese lead — in contrast to the time depicted in “Always,” when Japanese were just starting to become consumers, much as Americans were after the war.
“Always” took place “when you had nothing, but can believe that tomorrow can be a better today,” Yamazaki said. “Now, people fear running short of food, and keep food in their refrigerators, but the food can go rotten. That’s not something happy.”
In a notable moment, when the Suzukis buy a refrigerator to replace their icebox, the film cuts to the friendly ice delivery man dejectedly walking away, realizing his job will soon be obsolete.
Japan is now the second-richest country in the world, the director said, but baby boomer audiences can still connect with their memories of that more innocent time.
In turn, the film’s good word of mouth spread to Gen-X audiences, who are also drawn to the basic, touching values of kindness and a belief in people’s goodness.
While the film deals with a very distinct period in Japanese history, Yamazaki hopes it resonates with international audiences.
The movie, which was screened with English subtitles, elicited both tears and laughs at the New York screening, thanks to the well-defined emotions the actors conveyed. There were also some simple physical gags, including Suzuki’s hotheaded antics during his temper tantrums and his good-natured teasing of the goofy Chagawa.
Judging from the glowing and tear-streaked faces as audiences left the theater at the Japan Society, his hope was realized.