There are very few Japanese filmmakers working today who can convey the pitfalls and pressures – but also the pleasures – of youth as well Shunji Iwai. Located in-between the social polemic of Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) and the teenage wasteland of All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) in Iwai’s filmography is the often-overlooked April Story which focuses on Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu), a quiet but studious girl from Hokkaidō who has decided to attend Musashino University in Tokyo. Much of the opening sequence is seen from Uzuki’s point of view, enabling the audience to sense and share her awkwardness and excitement as she says goodbye to her family and takes the train to the big city to start her student life. Iwai proceeds to document Uzuki’s initial experiences in Tokyo; the moving company arrives at her new apartment with a truckload of household essentials and afterthoughts packed into shopping bags, neighbours wary of new residents accept gifts in a polite but reserved manner, while her new classmates are unconvinced when she states that she chose the university because of the quality of the campus and snigger at the big sweater she is wearing in the Tokyo heat. The only student who makes an effort to befriend Uzuki is Saeko (Kaori Fujii), although this initially seems to be a friendship-of-convenience as Saeko is also something of an outsider, a tomboy from the countryside who is keen to recruit new members for the fishing club. Iwai seems to be setting up a study of alienation and loneliness, but April Story slowly but surely reveals itself as something else entirely, just as Uzuki’s real motivation to study at Musashino University becomes apparent.
For two-thirds of April Story, the director adopts a documentary approach; Iwai is a master of everyday awkwardness and excels at revealing his characters as they try to evade or mislead the attentions of others. An early scene in the university cafeteria finds the rather direct Saeko trying to make friends with the nervous Uzuki, a conversation which takes place in a crowded space where the students must speak more loudly than usual in order to make themselves heard. Aside from the fact that neither is from Tokyo, the two girls have little in common, only managing to comment on the standard of food in the cafeteria and make a tentative arrangement to go shopping together. Uzuki’s aloof attitude means that she shows little interest in her lectures on the Japanese economy, or long-term commitment to the fishing club, while those around here seem be wondering if there is much more to their fellow student than a polite – albeit somewhat shy – personality. Uzuki does not seem be engaging with her new environment, and behaves in a passive manner, although she is certainly not unaware of the potential perils of the big city and moves swiftly when a stranger makes an unwanted advance while watching a samurai movie in a mostly-empty cinema. However, her efforts to find a particular book store, questions about when it is open, and return visits indicate ulterior motives for pursuing further study in Tokyo, thereby hinting at a hidden level of proactivity. This leads to the quite wonderful magical-realism of the final third, when a sequence involving heavy rainfall and a red umbrella will leave all but the most cynical viewer smiling as the credits roll.
Iwai’s youth movies – All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana and Alice (2004), his recent writer-producer effort Bandage (2010) – are generally ensemble pieces, often with generous sub-plot arcs for supporting players. However, the drama of April Story revolves entirely around the central character of Uzuki and Iwai’s observational process is perfectly complemented by the performance of Takako Matsu. Recently celebrated for her roles as the wife of an alcoholic novelist in Kichitaro Negishi’s Villon’s Wife (2009) and as vengeance-seeking school teacher in Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010), the luminous Matsu had only appeared in one feature film prior to April Story yet is simply perfect here, not only making Uzuki a relatable protagonist but also ensuring that Iwai’s subtle tonal shift from realistic drama to romantic whimsy is both consistent and credible. The title refers to the fact that April marks the start of the new school year in Japan, rather than the September start date favoured by most other countries, but the student experiences of Uzuki are universal. With a running time of sixty-seven minutes, April Story is longer than the average short, but not quite feature-length, which has perhaps made it awkward to place within Iwai’s oeuvre. However, it did receive a limited theatrical release in Japan, with Iwai – who self-distributed the film through his company Rockwell Eyes – reportedly transporting the prints to the theatres in person and even designing the tickets. Such dedication to detail is as evident in April Story as it is in Iwai’s more widely-seen films. As director and star are currently receiving international attention for, respectively, Vampire (2011) and Confessions, this beautifully realised character study is worth seeking out.