Running Time: 118 mins.
Director: Natsuki Seta
Writer: Natsuki Seta (Screenplay),
Starring: Ai Hashimoto, Mei Nagano, Shota Sometani, Shiro Sano, Reiya Masaki, Ryu Morioka, Shizuka Ishibashi,
Tokyo is home to many world famous parks such as Yoyogi and Ueno but when I lived in the mega-metropolis I developed a soft spot for Inokashira Park out in the fashionable area of Kichijoji. It may not be as big as the others but I found it an equally wonderful serene green space with lots of interesting features. It recently reached its 100th anniversary and the film “Parks” was commissioned to commemorate the special occasion. Since parks are public spaces that invite a multitude of visitors who form their own stories and memories, the challenge of making a film about the park would be paring down a huge number of ideas and interpretations of the area into a coherent narrative but writer/director Natsuki Seta and her team have managed it by creating an off-beat and charming drama with music at its heart that spans the decades and fully encompasses why parks are treasured by so many people.
Divided into chapters, the story follows three friends trying to recover a love song recorded at Inokashira Park in the ‘60s. It all begins with a university student named Jun (Ai Hashimoto) who lives near Inokashira Park. Having recently broken up with her boyfriend and struggling to find the creativity to complete her university course, she muddles her way through life. When a high-spirited high school girl named Haru (played by the delightful Mei Nagano) knocks on her door, it seems things may change. Haru may be a stranger but she hasn’t appeared at random. She was searching through her late father’s personal effects when she discovered a letter from and photograph of an ex-girlfriend who lived in the exact same apartment that Jun lives in and, in the name of preserving her father in her memory, Haru wants to find out more about him from the ex-girlfriend.
This fateful encounter motivates Jun who sees the embers of her creativity rekindling thanks to this story. A beguiling bit of detective work begins as this new dynamic duo search for the woman. They breathlessly run around and talk to people in the area before they track down the ex-girlfriend’s grandson Tokio (Shota Sometani), a sound engineer at a recording studio and wannabe rapper. He tells them that the woman has passed away but when he finds a roll of reel-to-reel tape in his grandmother’s belongings they find a way of communicating with her and Haru’s father. On the tape is a recording of a love song that Haru’s father made. This love song is a link to the past but due to the tape being damaged, they can’t listen to the whole thing, so the three try to recreate the missing parts to complete the song.
With a lot of potential for this film to be scattershot in ideas and execution, devolve into either a goopy emotional mess or simply be an advertisement for the park, the results are far superior than one may expect as many different interpretations of creativity and human connections experienced by many people and fostered by Inokashira Park are explored.
Inokashira, like all but the most neglected parks, is somewhere that draws families, artists, musicians, lovers, holidaymakers, and people just looking to take a break from the world and enjoy what is on offer. The film captures the park’s and visitor’s unique aspects and its inspirational qualities. We are treated to a quick bicycle tour by Jun who recites the many special features: cherry blossoms, ponds, couples, bridges, radio taiso, and more. Everything plays an element in the story that will be told as the narrative thread of the newly-discovered song soon sets this trio of teens on the tricky trail of a long lost love story which is embedded in many physical parts of the park and its history. This is a great way to make the story one for a general audience including different generations since elderly characters add colour to a story potentially spanning the park’s 100 year history.
Using the power of imagination, Haru travels back in time to the 1960s and physically inserts herself into these moments, her father’s early life captured as sepia-toned flashbacks, as she imagines a fuller picture of her father and experiences the creative process leading up to the love song. The more she imagines and learns, the more she critiques the music and tries to secure her father’s original creative intentions. Soon, she directly interrogates her father’s spirit and that of the ex-girlfriend. This personal exploration of history and creativity spreads to Jun who undergoes her own emotional journey making the film become heartfelt and adding some substance to the story.
Seta’s skilfully written female-led script is serious about its subject while never condescending to its characters or its audience and Seta, as a director, isn’t afraid of slowing things down for quieter scenes when the characters become more introspective as they develop, thus helping the lead performers avoid being turned into cloying drama cliches. Ai Hashimoto is the calm centre of the trio slowly being dragged along by the skittish and hyperactive (without being annoying) Shota Sometani and the human dynamo that is Mei Nagano provides the heart of the film with her innocent performance.
The overall texture and feel of the film is warm, bright, and breezy. Seta keeps everything moving at a reasonable clip through keeping the camera mobile, the editing sprightly, and by switching angles at the right moments to capture people and places. On the lakes, sat on benches, standing on balconies or relaxing in izakaya’s in a yokocho (somewhere Haru shouldn’t be at her age), Seta finds interesting angles to film things and give a sense of the community and park as well as the heightened thrill of discovery, excitement, and self-discovery that Haru and Jun experience in the story.
What audiences will enjoy the most are Seta’s use of singing and music which also adds to the exuberant atmosphere of the film. It is to be found in nearly every sequence and it is infections. There is a sense of creativity on the loose as characters create music, have impromptu jam and freestyle sessions, compose and create new versions of the love song. This creativity takes place all over the park and involves a wide cast of people. At its most adventurous, the film has Haru and Jun occasionally leap back in time to the ‘60s in cheerful musical sequences drawing from the fashion and music of the period where pop-art inspired backgrounds and huge newspaper reels act as backdrops for flights of fancy. Pretty soon, Haru and the cast of contemporary characters merge with the flashbacks as the central love song takes on greater personal meaning and people both past and present are linked together in the same scene in a joyous musical celebration of the park. It is achieved with such ease and skill you will come to admire Seta’s work behind the camera.
If the mission was to celebrate Inokashira Park and its place in the community, consider it accomplished.
“Parks” had its world premiere as the closing film of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017, and it received a warm round of applause. In my view, this is guaranteed to please a wide audience and with the actor’s charming performances and the ebulliently told story that Natsuki Seta brings to the screen. I for one left the cinema feeling happy and free, feelings that Natsuki Seta and her cast effortlessly convey in this sunny and vibrant film.
For those who really liked Cesium and a Tokyo Girl (2015) or who want to have a fun time at the cinema, Parks is perfect.