A joyous & dreamy look at a young person taking that big step into independence & finding oneself, April Story is as relatable now as it was in 1998. Engaging as it is poignant, its simple story gracefully guides you along. Full of hope and possibilities Shunji Iwai’s film does everything beautifully right.
Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu), a shy girl from the countryside of northern Hokkaido, is heading to the big city for university. Settling into a new, exciting life, she comes to admit to herself that she might have ulterior motives in determining her choice of university.
What strikes most with Shunji Iwai’s film is how relatable all of the events are. For anyone who has moved a long distance for university, then you will feel everything that Uzuki does as she tries to navigate through the new and unpredictable life of leaving the safety net of home. From the moment we see her say goodbye to her family via POV perspective, to trying to make friends with her classmates and taking up an unlikely university club, you feel for her as these experiences can be crippling. From a personal standpoint, I remember all too well the feeling of dragging all of my belongings onto trains and setting up in my new place and then having to meet dozens of new people and, worst of all introduce yourself and beg that someone takes a shine to you. It is almost horrifying how awkward it can be. With Uzuki, we see that as each student stands up, some are fine with it, but the more insular students struggle.
Iwai fills his film with a lot of gentle humour that eases you into the awkwardness of Uzuki’s experiences and the character herself. Long scenes are present, such as Uzuki trying to help the efficient movers bring all her stuff into her small apartment. She is practically dancing around the apartment as she tries to find a way in to help but also making sure not to get in their way. With this omnipresent throughout with that healthy helping of melodrama it truly makes for a very sweet and affectionate film. Soft lenses warm you, particularly as the wind blows the leaves off the tries as a soon to be married woman rushes to the car with her family, to even as Tokyo becomes drenched in a downpouring of rain, you can’t help but feel comforted by what is on the screen.
For a film that runs so short, you would imagine that it would be packed with situations for our lead to go experience. Yet, Iwai gives us a film where not too much happens, and what does is drawn out to a natural length. There is a great cinema scene waiting for you here for those who love black and white samurai films for example, there is zero reason for that scene to be as long as it ends up being, yet there it is running along and being as charming as possible. This drawn-out style allows for what little occurs in the movie to mean a lot more. For example, we see our lead gives welcome presents to her neighbours so that it might just bring them out to talk to her. While it is a small almost throw away gag at the people being private, it comes back later in the film to mean something and raise that enduring hope and positivity that the film is trying to get across.
That is what April Story is all about tackling big life moments and allowing them to guide you to the next one. Uzuki intends to adjust to this new world despite her shyness, and it pays off at least in the short term for her. She realises that long term aspirations, be it from her university experience and beyond, will come down the line. But why rush it? Try and enjoy them now, and if she sticks with her fly-fishing club, then great, if she and her neighbour become friends, then wonderful. If that boy in the bookshop becomes something more, then fantastic. But if some or none of those things happen, then that is okay, it is all a learning curve for her and in a way for us. Even in the short time she is in this new happenstance, she understands, and her growth in those days or weeks will help her in the future.
Iwai’s decision not to present everything in the neatest book covers showcases this perfectly. We leave our protagonist with hope and assuredness, and it is wonderful to see. Yes, it would be great to see how the future turns out for her, but it becomes poignant by leaving us as early into her story as we do. Again, anyone frustrated at the shortness in length and the fact that we leave the story where we do is rightful to feel this way simply due to how great April Story is. Its gentle guiding of this period in Uzuki’s life is interesting. Everything works so well that the feeling of leaving it early disappoints you. We want to see what happens next, and Iwai instead has us as the audience conjure up what we think happens.
April Story’s successes also have to go to how wonderful Takako Matsu is. You honestly can’t help but fall in love with her as she experiences all of these new things and as she battles with the reason for coming here and the pitfalls and successes that even that brings. She brings us a character that is hard to forget in this dreamy world. Her constant positivity is enduring and helps keep her mentally safe when at times, she could struggle. Moving to start university is a big deal, and many people crumble during this time. Iwai and Matsu make sure to let us see the doubt in her character, which helps the movie. For example, when we see her disappointment at not getting her neighbour to come over for dinner, we see a bit of deflation as she turns on the TV for company. By giving us these types of moments, we can feel more for her as she isn’t this one-note character but a very personable one.
This is an engaging film with the simplest of stories. When a film has everything working in such a confident and assured manner, it allows you to slip back into your seat and enjoy more. The small moments in a film, as lean as this matter, be it small lines of dialogue or glances, all building up to something, as it does in life. This leaning to present a realness to his film allows for an almost timeless feel. As mentioned at the beginning, this film is 23 years old. Yet, other than technology, you would never guess it due to how well it relates to past experiences—such a welcome viewing experience and one that won’t immediately leave you either. A joy of a film, if only we had more like it.
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