“Happiness is a State of Mind” is the title of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring film Programme. The idea that happiness is something different to everyone and that you have to work at it if you ever want to achieve it. Positive mental attitude, and all that jazz.
This year’s programme, therefore, hand picks a selection of films that demonstrate different views of happiness and how one builds it. But this is a two-sided Brexit 50p. Do you go out positively in the world to do all you can to achieve your goals?; or see happiness before you, but shy away from taking the plunge to achieving it? Does happiness come from achievement, or from the journey towards failure? For most of us – and as this collection of films suggest – it’s probably the latter.
If that’s the theme, then Sho Miyake’s 2018 “And Your Bird Can Sing” is a good place to kick-off the tour.
The novels of Yasushi Sato are frequently adapted for the big screen, namely the Hakodate-set “The Light Shines Only There” and “Over the Fence”. Perhaps the strongest is Sho Miyake’s adaptation of “And Your Bird Can Sing”. While the original novel is set in early 1980s Tokyo, Miyake simply can’t resist transporting it to modern day Hakodate; a move that certainly enhances the story of one wild summer for three aimless youths.
We are introduced through our unnamed narrator (Tasuku Emoto) to the story of a few months’ drinking in the sun. Working part-time at a book shop, he is the ultimate slacker; frequently turning up late for work, if at all, and taking little or no interest in the shop’s business. Another part-timer is student Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), who takes a liking to our hero’s laidback charm, despite already being involved in an affair with book shop manager Shimada (Masato Hagiwara).
Starting a relationship, she soon meets our slacker’s roommate, Shizuo (Shota Sometani), and Sachiko suddenly has a third man who takes her fancy. Sharing a bunk-bed together to save on rent, the three spend the summer living on top of each other, drinking until the early hours on a daily basis, avoiding work, their families, their studies and general adulthood altogether.
The summer is fun, but as it rolls on, Sachiko starts to develop greater feelings for the more innocent Shizuo, with whom she shares more conversation, than her apparently thought-less unnamed lover. With his lack of displaying any emotion one way or other, Sachiko feels the need to end the wonderful summer.
Miyake’s creates a realistic portrayal of a carefree summer for people in their early Twenties. This is one wonderful summer, where there are no ties and the only concern is ensuring there are enough beers in the fridge. The scene at the OMSB and DJ Hi’Spec (who provided the soundtrack) gig is extended, but with all the traits of a small-level gig with: too many beers; lots of people stood around at the background; and being unable to hear each other over the music. You feel that Miyake gave them a crate of beers and sent them in and let the cameras roll. It’s also ten minutes of pleasure for any fan of Japanese hip hop. Let’s just say, by the end credits, I really wanted a beer.
But this carefree vibe also provides little explanation as to our trio’s lives. The most is known about Shizuo’s life, often meeting his older brother to borrow money (though unseen) and his struggling mother, who in turn asks him for cash. But beyond money, Shizuo seems to have little real care or concern for his family: He is without urgency on learning his mother has collapsed. Sachiko may study, but she seems to be neglecting this for sex and booze; her home never shown. And our slacker hero leaves nothing of his life explained at all. All three are keen to stave off adulthood for now.
Sachiko is the one with any sort of potential future on the surface, though what this might be is also left unexplained. Shizuo is perhaps a man of intrigue, quietly watching the world in front of his eyes, but so far has done little except work in an ice-cream factory and claim unemployment benefits. As a part-time book shop employee, our hero knows he is no good at his low requirement job. But he shows no concern for this. He is living for the now.
The males, while hardly successes, are more sure of their positions, and have something like happiness. Sachiko, however, in one summer falls for three separate men. There are obviously the financial benefits of her affair with her boss, able to go to fancier places; sexual gratification comes in the form of our hero; while Shizuo is the emotional shoulder she relies on for heart-to-hearts. But when Shizuo asks about his butting-in on the relationship with his roommate, she simply avoids the question.
The final shot also shows that she is not sure what she wants her future to be. Was she in it for just the fun? Does she see anything really beyond the summer? As a student, she is well aware her life to come will change.
As Miyake shows at the film’s conclusion, our hero does finally show he is capable of thought, and indeed a desire for something. For one hundred minutes, Emoto is a face of little concern; laughter and a wry smile his only showing of any sort emotion. His live-and-let-live attitude sees him barely bat an eyelid when the two people closest to him begin to shut the door – or indeed at Sachiko’s initial revelation of her affair with the boss while they are dating.
But underneath the facade, he cares for the pair: He helps Shizuo’s mother when she comes calling; and violently defends Sachiko when a colleague bad-mouths her. But when faced with a definite change in circumstances, he can’t help but reveal his inner thoughts. It is he who matures, while Sachiko remains indecisive.