Opening the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019 is the world premiere of Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram, a love-letter to the local tram that runs in the west of Kyoto City that links famous sites such as scenic Arashiyama to the ancient Koryu-ji temple and the exciting Toei Kyoto Studio Park where jidaigeki have been made over the centuries. It is beloved by many who ride it and the film’s story depicts the intersecting lives of three different couples whose love resonates throughout a narrative as fate, by way of the trams, deliberately bring people together.
This collection of people consist of a writer named Eisei Hiraoka (Arata Iura) who has travelled from Kamakura to Kyoto to research supernatural stories. Kyoto is his wife Tomako’s (Satoko Abe) home town so everything holds memories of their last visit there. Kako Ogura (Ayaka Onishi), a painfully shy local woman who works for a restaurant is asked to help an up-and-coming actor from Tokyo named Fu Yoshida (Hiroto Kanai) practice speaking with Kyoto intonation at the movie studio park. The young man develops feelings for her and gently grasps at the chance of romance by asking for a tour of Arashiyama. Then there is Nanten Kitakado (Tamaki Kubose), a high school girl from Aomori, who falls for a local high school boy (Kenta Ishida) racing around Kyoto filming the trams on a Super-8 camera. Despite her chasing after him, he sees nothing but trams.
Over the course of the story, the love of these couples is carried along by the titular trams as the characters hop on and off at various stops. As they travel the city, they also weave around their heart’s desire or fear, trying to understand and attain what tangles their emotions. For Eisei, it is his worry that he has changed and lost touch with his wife. For Kako, she deals with severe self-confidence issues and shrinks from Fu’s romantic gestures despite tentative feelings of her own. For Nanten, her desire for a perfect love must not be thwarted and it must only be a matter of time before the boy switches tracks and turns his attention from trams to her. As the characters journey, they enjoy some of the many, many special locations and traditions the city offers and work through their emotions. As a result audiences see kaleidoscopic examples of love ranging from the brash but naive energy of youth contrasted with the older character’s more nuanced and constant love that runs a little cooler but is just as powerful. Each set of characters will cross paths at points and their actions may echo or entirely change the perspective of others.
There is a fascinating dynamic between the characters as they naturally meet at station platforms or in nearby cafes and talk, their defensiveness over meeting strangers giving way to a need for connection as they wrestle with their emotions for others. The tram becomes like a guide ushering people together so they can help each other. Director Takuji Suzuki places the characters on or around the trams in many of the scenes and there isn’t an uninteresting shot because a tram is sure to cut through, or, at the very least, one can be heard in the background. The trams can be seen from the outside in the many dolly and handheld shots that track characters in relation to the city around them or from the inside during interior shots.
Few films about Kyoto can be boring, even the quiet suburban streets which are fascinating to venture into, and there are characters who give folklore and history which brims with pride and love for their city. This helps create a dreamlike atmosphere where the lines between fantasy. and reality are blurred.
These examples of love become intense as a little of Kyoto’s special magic, which Eisei is researching, is sprinkled over the narrative and supernatural things happen as hearts open up or tremble with uncertainty. Certain trams can create or doom a romance, a tanuki and fox spirit appear at special times, and characters take on the spiritual essence of figures from the past as they struggle to attain love. It is like a Nobuhiko Obayashi film in that it darts between waking and dream states without batting an eyelid and we get absorbed in the emotions evoked in the beautiful surroundings which ultimately make this a charming fairy-tale of a film that breathes the culture and atmosphere of the city.
When watching the film I was swept up by the emotions and remembered my first time on a Randen tram. How I and a friend had walked through a quiet street to a station squirrelled away amongst houses and cherry blossom trees that were in full bloom, how we boarded a tram, sat down and enjoyed the beautiful sights around us. Every time I think about Kyoto, I think about that tram and appreciate it exists and the beautiful memory it created. Randen is a film about love, the love locals have for the tram and their city, the love the tram evokes in people, and the love that the tram can deliver as it safely and reliably carries people back and forth on their journeys and has done so for over 100 years. This film carries that love and is a delight to watch.
Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram was shown on March 8 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.