Au revoir l’ete
ほとりの朔子 「Hotori no Sakuko」
Running Time: 125 mins.
Release Date: January 18th, 2014
Director: Koji Fukada
Writer: Koji Fukada (Screenplay)
Starring: Fumi Nikaido, Mayu Tsuruta, Kanji Furutachi, Taiga, Ena Koshino, Makiko Watanabe, Kiki Sugino
Koji Fukada is a film-maker inspired by the cultures of France and Indonesia as best evidenced by him transplanting elements to his native Japan in his many works. His like of French New Wave cinema is made obvious by this film, Au Revoir l’ete, which means goodbye summer and plays like an Eric Rohmer film where relationships are unpicked in a nonchalant manner as we get to a deeper understanding of some human relationships. It’s the perfect title for a film that describes the quiet misadventures of a teenage girl who waves goodbye to her naivete and matures a little more while in the company of some childish adults.
It is late August and an eighteen-year-old Tokyoite Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a ronin student who is preparing to take her university entrance exam after flunking her previous one. Studying is the perfect excuse for her to tag along with her aunt Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta) who is house-sitting for her sister, Sakuko’s mother, in a sleepy coastal town.
While there, Mikie is researching flora connected to Indonesia as she translates a book while Sakuko, who should be studying, meets her aunt’s childhood friend (and ex-lover) Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi) who manages a local love hotel and lives with his daughter, a university student named Tatsuko (Kiki Sugino), and his nephew Takashi (Taiga) who is from Fukushima and working at the hotel after dropping out of school.
Sakuko finds every excuse to avoid studying as she spends her time listlessly learning to play the keyboard, lolling about on the beach, lazily watering the plants, and eventually getting involved with everyone’s lives. This group are soon joined by a visiting married academic named Nishida (Tadashi Otake). He seems to be an old flame of Mikie and complicates matters.
Through her aunt’s social circle of lovers and local neighbours who spread gossip, what Sakuko discovers is a truth about adulthood: that polite exterior is a facade.
This applies particularly when it comes to the guys in this story. From the seemingly harmless and stoic Ukichi to the calm intellectual Nishida, it turns out that they are all hung up on Mikie. Caught in the wake of Sakuko’s beautiful aunt, beneath their polite veneer is someone nursing frustrated desires and relationship woes. They are revealed to be venal and hypocritical and driven by sex. While the women show more maturity than the men, they are not above base desires and even use sex to get back at people.
As with some things Japanese, ambiguity is everything and it defines many encounters as evidenced here in a web of relationships which continues to evolve fitfully as people try and suss out various signals and, eventually, due to quiet desperation, give up on subtlety and reveal everything in messy, undignified encounters.
Through this, Sakuko is meant to mature as a person as she learns somewhat bitter lessons about adulthood and better defines herself.
Fukada’s script and direction can best be described as meandering as long takes with not much happening – maybe an extended tracking shot or observations on locales – couch winding dialogue that snakes around to slowly reveal insights into how people interact. A slow rhythm fits the languid atmosphere of the film as we listen to the wash of the waves lapping the beach and see people struggle with their impulses and desires, especially in social situations when an object of hate or desire is near and we wait patiently for a glimpse of an ulterior motives peek above the polite surface of a person.
At times it feels the content of the film is a little too unfocused to completely hold attention as the narrative flops lazily between the adults around Sakuko and herself. This might be frustrating for some viewers.
At Fukada’s sharpest, say, something like Harmonium and Human Comedy Tokyo, there is focus on a specific emotion, like a sense of dread, and it is brought out fully as ideas are teased and suspicions stack up even if the pace is slow but here the emotions might be too diffused to build up a strong emotional atmosphere, something that may have been achievable with the film more about Sakuko than splitting the story on the rest of the cast so much.
That written, performances here are generally good although Kiki Sugino, the producer of this film, has an energy that is a little too strong for her co-stars who act more low-key and nonchalant (or try to). Fumi Nikaido and Taiga have the more intriguing relationship as she gently signals her interest in him and he, like a dense idiot, fails to observe her signs. Kanji Furutachi continues to do the louche losers well and evokes some sympathy.
A nice touch is seeing how teenagers can become such people, especially Takashi’s background as a Fukushima refugee, which, while the wider issue is not handled that adroitly, is used to show a pattern of people repeating the adult’s disingenuous and ambiguous behaviour as he finds himself in the sights of a girl with grand ideas and results in some cringe-inducing scenes. This serves to push the plot along for a sweet night time sojourn for Fumi Nikaido and Taiga’s characters as they lament how awful people can be and how they want to escape. It doesn’t go anywhere explosive, just a gentle epiphany that they should group up. For that brief time together… Just talking about dreams is enough. And then it’s au revoir to the town.
I kind of liked it at the end even if I wasn’t convinced by everything.
While the whole film might be unfocused and languid for some, it does drive home how human relations are difficult when desires cloud the heart and how we can become hypocrites and disingenuous particularly when it comes to thinking about our own needs first. Also… Adults are the worst.
Overall this is a decent film and worth watching if only to try and understand the career trajectory of Fukada, familiar actors like Furutachi and the range of Fumi Nikaido and Taiga.