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The year is 1987 and Japan is just reaching the peak of its economic success. Eighteen-year old Yonosuke Yokomichi arrives in Tokyo from Nagasaki. Ordinary in every way possible, he lives in a suburb far from the excitement of the big city and commutes to a university in the center of Tokyo. During his first days at school, Yonosuke befriends Ippei Kuramochi and Yui Akutsu. Soon after, he joins the Samba club and spends his leisure time learning to dance. In the Samba club, Yonosuke meets Kato, who turns out to be gay. Together, they take a driving class where Yoko, a rich girl, shows interest in Yonosuke. But he hardly notices her advances; he is infatuated with party girl Chiharu, an older woman he met by chance. Parallel to the depiction of this year of ordinary college life, the characters are shown sixteen years later in the year 2003. However, missing from these scenes is Yonosuke, who is said to have become a cameraman after college. After learning of Yonosuke's death, Yoko ...Written by
I found A Story Of Yonosuke striking, but for entirely the wrong reason. Put simply, ASOY is a case study in culture-specific humour, and is far more interesting to consider in this manner than as a light comedy biopic epic.
It was an effort to sit through nearly two and a half hours of this. Not that it was all that dull, but the laughs are mostly silly giggles, and there are often long stretches between laughs where not a lot happens. The narrative is structured as an epic, spanning sixteen years, told from several different viewpoints, with multiple flashbacks which sometimes confuse and irritate. This epic scale is stunningly at odds with the lightly comic examination of the life of one foolish man, and how he affected the lives of those he befriended.
The title character is presented like a younger version of Tora-san, a fool who stumbles through life with a sunny view of things, strongly projecting that quality much admired by Japanese, 'genki' (difficult to translate – a combination of lively, positive, optimistic, energetic). The laughter starts when he tells his name. Nearly everyone in the film giggles at the mention of his name. The Japan Film Festival audience was sharply divided on this. Japanese audience members got the joke, but we gaijin (foreigners) sat there po-faced and puzzled, until one of the characters thoughtfully explained that the alliteration of the name was the funny part.
Alliteration seems to have a more specific definition in Japanese. That his name is Yokomichi Yonosuke is what cracked up the characters and the Japanese audience. An English equivalent, such as Adam Addison, just doesn't do it for us. Not that Japanese names aren't funny to us. Any name including Fuk or Yuk, or the name Aso, can trigger more than giggles.
Perhaps this is the Japanese equivalent of rhyming names in English. Ridiculously contrived rhymes such as Richard Pritchard or Katie Tate are practically guaranteed to amuse. Japanese songs hardly ever rhyme. Indeed, it seems they are constructed to avoid rhyming at all costs. Odd, considering that the language has a much greater potential for rhyming (and punning) than English.
So, Japanese dislike rhymes but Westerners find them amusing. Japanese are amused by alliteration, but Westerner only raise an eyebrow at best.
We evidently have a clear difference between the humour of Japanese and Westerners. ASOY rests totally on this humour, which is why I found watching the movie a test of endurance more than a comedy. If ever ASOY were given a wider release, I heartily recommend shortening it by at least one hour, and I do not think the story will suffer for it.
The Japan Film Festival website classified this year's movies into a number of categories. I am puzzled that they failed to apply the category "Only In Japan" to ASOY.
There are a few bright spots. Yonosuke woos a rich girl. He feels very out-of-place in her mansion. There are several scenes where he has awkward dates, which are only semi-explicably always watched over by the family chambermaid. This actress never speaks, but when the camera cuts to her for a reaction, her expressions are simply hilarious. This is a combination of excellent editing and superb comic timing. Pity there wasn't more of this.
The ending is very puzzling. There is no explanation, stated or implied, as to why things worked out this way. For such an unnecessarily long journey, which examines Yonosuke's effect on a number of people and his near-relentless cheerfulness in exhausting detail, I expected something better, to not be left hanging. But I suspect that, like the humour, only the Japanese would ever truly get it.
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