Always - Sunset on Third Street Review
Tokyo - 1958. Thirteen years have passed since the Second World War took its toll on Japan. Rikidozan is a national hero and the proud nation is once again getting back on its feet in an attempt to embrace a new dawn. The residents of san-chome (Third Street) go about their daily lives, whilst around them an incomplete Tokyo Tower looms and the sounds of passing trams and bustling people on their way to work filters through the calm air.
Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is a struggling writer and former finalist for the Akutagawa Literary Prize. The owner of a general store, he makes ends meet by selling candies and comics, while the locals laugh and mock him for clinging onto his glory days and making a living out writing stories for children. The only thing he even thinks of holding dear is a bar girl named Hiromi (Koyuki), who appears to be nothing more than a player with a flair for pretty persuasion. Pouncing at the perfect opportunity she entrusts a young boy in her care called Junnosuke (Kenta Suga) unto Chagawa, who is hopelessly infatuated with the woman. Taking the boy in, he soon begins to regret his decision, knowing that they have no real ties to one another and that he’s hardly in a position to be considered a fatherly figure.
Over the road lives Chagawa’s old friend, Mr. Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), owner of a small, family run business called “Suzuki Auto”. His wife Tomoe (Hiroko Yakushimaru) and son Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu) look after the house, while he works hard to the bone in order to provide a steady income. Soon enough he receives a response from an advertisement he placed seeking experienced mechanics. Mutsuko (Maki Horikita) is a country girl who has come to Tokyo with the hopes of working as a secretary for “Suzuki Motors”, but when she meets Mr. Suzuki her hopes are shattered as he drives her to san-chome and welcomes her to her new home. She soon settles in and adopts the nick-name “Roku-chan”, but her comfort is soon compromised when certain truths come out about her situation.
The lives of those living in san-chome are closely examined, as several of its residents try to overcome the difficulties that they face everyday. Hope always shines on Third Street and for some a single sunset can echo a thousand sentiments.
For what it’s worth, and when it comes to awards ceremonies is often very little, Always – Sunset on Third Street was winner of twelve out of thirteen nominations at Japan’s most recent Academy Awards. It was a box-office smash, which broke the two billion yen barrier when it hit cinema screens last year. Putting those awards behind us for a moment the most important thing is knowing whether or not we can trust such immense appraisal. Well, as much as I often find myself disagreeing with the academies every year, it’s nice to know that I can still be pleasantly surprised and find a film that is just about fully deserving of its golden prizes.
Takashi Yamazaki, who made his feature debut in 2000 with Juvenile and closely followed it up with the science fiction blockbuster Returner, not to mention his stint as assistant director on the anime series Heat Guy J turned his attention to Ryohei Saigan’s 1973 manga San-chome no Yuhi in 2004. Using his already established FX skills he proceeded to bring to life a piece of history that only our elders can recall today.
Nostalgia always gets the better of us and Yamazaki provides plenty in his latest outing. There are so many nuances littered throughout Always, with nods to signs of the times: Television becoming a popular medium in which the director captures a small part of a country coming together and rejoicing as one; the Tokyo Tower, standing as a representation of hope and dreams for a nation building itself up from ashes; Rock-a-Billy music blaring through radios as American influences slowly begin to filter through; Coca-Cola, the new-fangled drinking craze and the luxury of cream puffs; the modernisation of a family unit as it embraces other technical wizardry such as washing machines and fridge freezers. This was a period when everything was held sacred and when attitudes toward social change were more positive than ever. But above all Always is about surviving through the worst of times and making way for new horizons. The Japanese spirit prevails once more as Yamazaki takes us on pleasant journey into the past.
Takashi Yamazaki is perhaps one of Japan’s most pioneering visual effects masters. He bought us transforming jets, four years before a Transformers film was green-lit, and while Masahiro Shinoda beat him to the punch in terms of computer rendered cityscapes with his final - and ridiculously overlooked - film, Spy Sorge in 2003, Yamazaki does wonders in recreating another part of Japan, in a time where drastic changes were taking place. Though it doesn’t sound like it, its far more epic and subtle than Returner ever was. Not only does Yamazaki create a huge, digital backdrop for his story-telling, but so too does he place most of his environments on a sound stage, which instantly brings to mind Francis Ford’s Coppola’s One from the Heart, whereby we were drawn into an entirely fabricated Las Vegas. In fact, judging Always as a whole I’m left to wonder if this film can indeed be considered as the Japanese answer to Coppola’s 1982 feature. After all it also centres its story on comparable situations; focusing on several individuals who go through many trials and ultimately find their lot in life. And, much like said film it’s here where the environment compliments the overall story as a character in itself.
Despite Yamazaki doing absolute wonders with visual trickery, he never allows the film to drown in it. In fact, after the first ten minutes of showing off to the audience with impossible camera shots and unnecessary - though impressive CG, such as a lizard eating a moth - he settles in to the film nicely. Always doesn’t hinge itself on the sole fact that what we’re looking at is a lovingly recreated Tokyo of the 50s, but instead relies firmly on an exceedingly talented and diverse cast. To be perfectly honest there’s very little in the way of actual plot; merely connections between characters that are formed during several intervals, yet Yamazaki takes his time to fully develop these primary characters in all kinds of wonderful ways, which manages to show a real sense of progression for each; from displaying cartoon-ish showdowns, to pleasant and melodic accompaniments and of course a few bouts of melodrama, which, at times, becomes a little too signposted for its own good. Nevertheless, even with chirpy and sometimes manipulative scoring, Always remains a tightly focused and surprisingly upbeat piece of work, which shows that Yamazaki has grown considerably as a director since the eye-candylicious, but vapid Returner from 2002.
For this review Yesasia has supplied us with the single disc (normal edition) Japanese release.
Always is presented with an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film opens with a nod to “Tohoscope” reflecting the classic age from which this film takes place. Yamazaki clearly wishes to encapsulate that style of film making, with a wide lens, set to capture as much of san-chome as possible. As such he uses a few other bits of visual trickery to make the film feel pleasantly suited. As soft filter is applied as well as a small amount of diffusion which almost gives the film a fairytale quality. With these inherent qualities the overall transfer holds up well and I don’t imagine that should it arrive in HD it’ll look much better than it currently does. Colours are pleasing and appear to be deliberately muted, while the plentiful CG blends in better than it probably would, had this been filmed in any other way. The only thing that mares the transfer is a noticeable amount of Edge Enhancement.
For sound we get a few nice options, with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0, 5.1 Surround and 5.1 DTS. I chose to go with the latter track and while it’s not a remarkable step up from the 5.1 Surround option, it is neatly mastered. Naoki Sato’s uplifting score receives a solid treatment and the main stand out throughout are the street sounds that manage to immerse the viewer into the little town. Dialogue poses no problems, sticking mainly to the front speakers, while the rears pick up subtle ambient effects.
Optional English subtitles are included and provide very nice translations, especially considering that some of the dialogue deals with different dialects. Things like this have been well catered for, providing the viewer with a good understanding of different regions, not to mention couple of fun pokes.
Not a bad collection for a standard release, but as usual there’s very little for those importing to get excited over. With two audio commentaries it’s a shame that we don’t have the luxury of subtitles for extra features. In Japanese only are cast and crew biographies and finally a collection of trailers, consisting of a theatrical trailer, two teasers and five TV spots.
Always – Sunset on Third Street is the most pleasing blockbuster (a little odd to say, given it’s far removed from the usual summer fare) feature to surface within the past year. Takashi Yamazaki’s film is most certainly a labour of love, and a sincere one at that; his best to date I might add. On occasion it does try a little too hard to melodramatise (new word) us, but I can’t be too cynical toward it because of that. With some magnificent performances, from both young and old generations and well-rounded and likeable characters, Always is an often poignant and uplifting affair that perfectly captures an innocent moment in time, where hope and spirits were raised for the common good, in a land once torn apart by the ravages of war.