First-time filmmaker Takuya Misawa pays tribute to Yasujiro Ozu with an intricate romantic drama set at a Japanese resort.
Yasujiro Ozu fans take note: Chigasaki Story unfolds in the very seaside inn where the Japanese auteur lived for half a year and conceived of Tokyo Story and Late Spring.
More than that, Takuya Misawa's directorial debut owes much more to the Japanese auteur than merely the setting: static townscapes abound to bookend the film, and as transitions in between scenes; while Ozu's penchant for ellipsis (specifically, in An Autumn Afternoon) is paid tribute to in, among others, the shape of an unseen exchange of marital vows. Then again, Chigasaki's subtle visual charms come alongside generous smatterings of hilarious comedy revolving around suppressed, misplaced and awkwardly expressed yearning, as Misawa interweaves his understated directorial style with imploding relationship dramas akin to those by Hong Sang-soo, Eric Rohmer or even Woody Allen.
Chigasaki Story is the latest of now a long line of modestly-budgeted romantic comedies produced by Japanese indie muse Kiki Sugino, whose previous outing Au revoir l'été has secured a sustained run in the festival circuit ever since its premiere at the Tokyo festival last year. In Misawa, Sugino has certainly helped unearth another future auteur with a voice well-placed to bridge mainstream sentimentality and arthouse credibility. Boasting a complex narrative of intertwining relationships, vibrant performances from its young cast and a colorful setting which will appeal to international audiences hungering for a slice of bucolic Japan served (courtesy of DP Shogo Ueno) sunny side up, Chigasaki Story should follow Sugiro's previous outings for a healthy sojourn in indie festivals worldwide, its bow at the Singapore International Film Festival to be followed swiftly with a date at Marrakech.
Chigasaki Story revolves around the budding (or long-buried) romances among guests staying at a guesthouse in the titular Japanese seaside resort town. The first batch to arrive is a group of archeology students visiting Chigasaki for an annual field trip during which they would visit ruins and practice how to mend shards of earthenware; the connection between the troupe and the location is Tomoharu (Haya Nakazaki), who also works as a caretaker at the inn. Belying his tall physique, the young man is shy and works like a slave – qualities which clearly enamored his bright classmate Ayako (Juri Fukushima); however, his heart is only sent racing by the sassy Karin (Ena Koshino), who arrives with her groundcrew colleague Maki (Sugino) to attend a reception organized by inn-owner (and former co-worker) Risa (Natsuko Hori) to celebrate her marriage (with a chubby filmmaker called George, no less).
What follows is three days of romantic merry-go-rounds as each individual go through emotional peaks and troughs as they flirt, row, confess and implode in their attempts to consolidate their feelings – a process in which the characters are made to reveal their own true selves to the surprise and dismay of others. There's a reason why the main characters all work (or are training to earn a living) in excavation and maintenance: as the story proceeds, these individuals are shown digging too far into the ground of their consciousness so that they couldn't find their way out. But it's all slow-burning burrowing, and Misawa and Daisuke Hasebi's editing has managed to keep everything simmering to keep the observer on edge, cringing and then bursting into nervous laughter at the characters' every bizarre turn in articulating their desire.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the meatiest role goes to Sugino, with Maki's initial haughtiness – with an attire and behavior in deep contrast to Karin's devil-may-care sensuality – giving way to openness as she rekindles her infatuation with the student's professor Kondo (Satoshi Nikaido), who mentored her on a similar seminar trip to Chigasaki during her own university days. But her aggressive approach in wooing the man – just like Karin's way of playing with Tomoharu, or Risa's brother Kouta's pursuit of Ayako – simply doesn't generate dividends. Similarly, the best turn on show here belongs to newcomer Nakazaki, who delivers a nuanced, internalized turn as the taunted, teased and bullied Tomoharu – a fulcrum on which Chigasaki Story's stirrings of fragile hearts are well told.