The Wonder of a Summer Day (Japan, 2022) [OAFF 2022]

Sibling relationships are complicated, even when they don’t have to be. Sometimes they overwhelm you, and sometimes they make you feel alone and isolated and hopeless – all part of the process. The Wonder of a Summer Day by first-time director Yuka Ibayashi offers a delightfully quaint and optimistic view into the lives of siblings driven apart by unfortunate circumstances. Through naturalism and minimalism, Ibayashi tells an honest story of sibling rivalry and alienation that tugs at the heartstrings without overdoing the melodrama.

Kanata (Nogishi Konoha) lives with her mother, while her younger sister Sumire (Ikeda) lives with her dad. Because of distance and bitter memories, the two sides haven’t seen each other in a while, and Kanata has become estranged with most people around her. She’s also had a hard time connecting with anyone at school, instead spending the majority of her time submissively doing the chores that nobody else wants or helping out in her mom’s karaoke bar. She has no plans for the summer, and her only friend is the school’s science teacher with whom she shares the occasional lab brewed coffee. One day Kanata’s mother suggests that she visits her grandmother with her sister as a way of spending more time together. Kanata reluctantly accepts.

Initially Kanata has a hard time connecting with her sister who she hasn’t seen in over a year. She can’t even find many things to talk about. The audience wonders: is this depression or the usual pangs of adolescence? Sumire wants to see the fireflies one more time with her sister, even though she’s repeatedly told that firefly season is over. Kanata agrees, though it is obvious she is resentful for the trouble. She grows even more resentful throughout the trip, until her patience finally wears out and her feelings are laid bare.

The Wonder of a Summer Day is a quiet film whose strength derives from subtle character moments and reconciliations. This is achieved by the wonderful performances of the cast, especially Konoha, whose acting is understated yet emotionally resonant. Kanata never complains about anything, yet it’s hard to miss her anger and dissatisfaction. Waiting for her bubbled emotions to explode is like following a high-speed chase from a distance – safe yet exciting. When she finally gives up and speaks her mind, the film achieves closure. The relationship between Kanata’s parents (played by Kikuchi Akiko and Yishizawa Hisashi) also carries the mark of naturalism, depicting two adults that can get along despite their differences. Though they share only three or so scenes together, the essence of their relationship (or lack there-of) is abundantly evident on screen.

The use of the Toyama Prefecture’s natural scenery – almost like a character into itself (as cliche as that sounds) – is also utilized to great effect. The countryside at their grandmother’s house serves as the connective tissue that’s all but ruptured between the two sisters. Kanata is hesitant to go see the fireflies (of course, she is eager to remind us that it’s not their season), resenting her sister for the trouble. However, it is not long before her emotions get the better of her and we begin to understand that her resentment is only a projection of her loneliness. The contrast between the dullness of her school corridors or her mom’s karaoke bar and the lively green mountain paths put Kanata’s isolation in perspective.

The film’s pace is sluggish at times – perhaps too much time is spent in the setup – but the patience it demands pays off in the end. The Wonder of a Summer Day is very much like its title suggest – a quiet summer day in the countryside, without much fanfare but invigorating if you know what wonders to seek.

The Wonder of a Summer Day was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 16.