Unlike much of the
world, the New Year begins in April in Japan. April
marks the season of the Sakura bloom, the beginning
of a new fiscal year for the government, and also
the beginning of a new school year for Japanese schools,
where hordes of new students invade college campuses
around the country. One of those students is Uzuki
Nireno (Takako Matsu). Leaving her family in the isolated
northern prefecture of Hokkaido, Uzuki is looking
for a new beginning all the way out in Tokyo as a
freshman in Musashino University.
Thus marks the beginning
of April Story, a gentle fairy tale from director
Shunji Iwai that reflects a return to the lighthearted
tone of his debut feature Love Letter after
the dark, gritty fantasy that was Swallowtail.
The 64-minute film chronicles Uzuki's adjustment period
at Musashino University. An awkward introduction where
she can't seem to explain her reason for choosing
Musashino doesn't earn her any new friends, except
for a blunt classmate who drags her into the fly fishing
club. Even there, she embarrasses herself by naming
the wrong Brad Pitt movie that features fly-fishing
(clue: he doesn't get killed by a bear at the end).
Meanwhile, Uzuki tries to adjust to her new life in
Tokyo, but not only can she not fit everything she
wants in her apartment, her neighbor won't talk to
her with an open door, and she can't even go out without
encountering shady characters. However, with one single
encounter, Uzuki would be reminded of why she chose
Originally conceived as a
short film, April Story is, unlike Love
Letter and Swallowtail, remarkably simple.
In an almost documentary fashion, Iwai simply follows
Uzuki around as she deals with a new school and a
new environment until her reason for choosing Tokyo
and Musashino is finally revealed. Iwai indulges in
details rather than narrative, an approach that Iwai
has attempted a little too much in his previous films,
and also might alienate viewers who prefer their films
with plots and character development. But unlike his
previous films, where Iwai's self-indulgent use of
details detracted from the plot, April Story
benefits from immense detail because of its nature
as a character study.
In addition to his attention
to details, Iwai also sticks close to his personal
style, opting for a dreamy visual look that matches
the fairy tale tone of his film. From the sights of
falling Sakura petals along an empty street to Uzuki
running in the rain under a red umbrella, suburban
Tokyo has never looked more beautiful. But the real
star of the film is Takako Matsu. As the focus of
the film, Matsu, who was still at college age at the
time, brings a charming innocence to Uzuki. Despite
her initial awkwardness and her character's ulterior
motives, her character is easy to relate to because
she is so awkward. Uzuki may be just another young
"fish out of water" in big, bad Tokyo, but
it's Matsu's performance that keeps Uzuki a compelling
enough character to warrant the focus.
Cynics may expect April
Story to be about darker aspects of college life.
After all, Iwai depicted the horrors of high school
life in All About Lily Chou-Chou and Love
Letter. But in the end, April Story is
just a simple story about a new beginning that is
easy to relate to. No one can nor should expect Iwai
to pull off another Love Letter or Swallowtail
in a scant 64 minutes. What Iwai did pull off here
is a fairy tale come true. But unlike other cinematic
fairy tales, the film feels true thanks to its authenticity.
Even when Iwai gets a little liberal with saccharine-filled
moments towards the end, there is not one false note
of sentimentality; every emotion is earned, and smiles
are practically guaranteed when the screen goes black.
College may not be that sweet in real life, but Iwai
and co. will certainly convince you that could be.
Just for that, April Story may be one of the
best college movies ever made. (Kevin Ma 2006)