28 December 2017 | nmegahey
The elusive nature of youthful innocence
With its 1987 setting significantly during Japan's economic boom years, THE STORY OF YONOSUKE would appear to use its 'student days' setting as a way to reflect on the past and indulge in a nostalgic outlook for more innocent and simpler times. Surprisingly however, while there would appear to be an exaggerated naivety to the characters here and a loving if subtly understated re-creation of the period, there is at the same time no indulgent attempt to recapture a lost idyll of youth in Shuichi Okita's gentle film, rather an attempt to capture its significance.
Much of the charm of THE STORY OF YONOSUKE inevitably rests on the character at the centre of the film. Although it may not be evident to outsiders, the very name Yonosuke Yokomichi has a particular, or peculiar, resonance in Japanese that amuses everyone who meets him. It's a joke name, the name a comedian would have, a name that could only come from rural Japan and sound ridiculous to the more sophisticated young people of Tokyo. Arriving in Tokyo to attend university, eighteen year-old Yonosuke (Kengo Kora) does indeed come from the sticks, from a little fishing village in Nagasaki, but he also has a certain naive charm and self-confidence and his open and engaging manner means that he makes friends easily. In essence, as we find out, it's the people he befriends who are just as important to THE STORY OF YONOSUKE as the nominal main character. Perhaps even more so.
Two of Yonosuke's fellow students on his Business Administration course, Ippei Kuramochi and Yui Akutsu, join him in the university's Samba club, but they both drop out of university altogether shortly afterwards. Yonosuke also becomes friends in a case of mistaken identity with Kato, the two of them going on a double date with two girls from their year. For Kato, looking back several decades later as an entirely different person, it was an unlikely situation for him, but even more so for the poor country-boy who is paired up with Shoko, the giggling, enthusiastic but shy girl from a very wealthy and prestigious family. Yonosuke however only has eyes for Chiharu, a sophisticated, glamorous older woman who preys on wealthy men. She's also clearly well out of his league, the young boy from Nagasaki having nothing to offer a good-time party girl, but Yonosuke remains undeterred.
Each of these interweaving stories is a relatively simple and heart-warming tale of youthful friendship. They seem remarkably straightforward, linear and perhaps even over-indulgent in terms of how they are drawn out in a long film that really doesn't seem to merit such elaboration. The story of Shoko and Yonosuke, for example, seems impossibly naive and unrealistic. Shoko is driven everywhere in a big car by her family's private chauffeur and lives under the watchful and suspicious eyes of her parents (and maid), yet she is allowed to spend part of the summer up in Yonosuke's home village in Nagasaki. In other circumstances the behaviour of these two innocent giggling children building up to making their feelings known to each other, drawing cartoons and dancing around in the snow would be close to nauseating and almost impossible to believe. In the context of the film however and in the context of the very specific short little present-day updates on how each of the characters are living now, it actually proves to be warmly beautiful as well as meaningful.
What prevents the film from slipping into nostalgia and a romantic idealisation of youth is the significant fact that we don't revisit Yonosuke Yokomichi at any stage in the future. By the end of the story we find that we are probably able to say and know much more about Yonosuke's friends than we do about him. His personality is barely sketched out, his reactions are mostly passive in deference to the needs of his friends, and his interest and his dedication to the afterschool Samba group - to give just one example - doesn't really tell us anything important about him. As such, the film runs the risk of leaving a vacant emotional space at the very point where it is essential to have one. There's evidently a narrative reason for Yonosuke's absence from the present-day scenes, but the low-key nature of where this revelation is placed and how it is mentioned only in passing would seem to imply that the film has a more important message or sentiment to deliver.
At the risk of reading a little too much into it, it's not so much that Yonosuke's barely defined character leaves an emotional void at the heart of THE STORY OF YONOSUKE as much as the fact that the enigma of Yonosuke in some way represents the elusive nature of youth itself. He's the touchstone to the fun, free and innocent days of the others' youth, something that they were perhaps unable to fully appreciate at the time, something that - as the last scene of the film suggests - is as elusive and impossible to recapture as an amateur photographer's attempt to snap a fleeing puppy, or as faint and unrelatable now as an underexposed portrait taken on a summer's day of a distant self. The people they are now are far removed from the youths they were then, but the memory of Yonosuke remains preserved, untouched and unspoilt in the past. Yonosuke is a memory of youth that holds no false idealism or sentimentality for the people he once knew, but rather he exists as a timeless reminder of how significant those days of youth and friendship were, a time that in some indefinable way gives context and meaning to the lives they lead now in a rather more harsh and unforgiving world.