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April Story
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Takako Matsu
Japanese: 四月物語
Year: 1998
Director: Shunji Iwai
Writer: Shunji Iwai

Takako Matsu, Seiichi Tanabe, Kazuhiko Kato, Kahori Fujii

  The Skinny: Charming, simple, and to the point, Shunji Iwai returns to basics with this short docudrama/romance. It may not be as astonishing as his previous works, but at 64 minutes, it's much better than it could've been.
Kevin Ma:

Unlike much of the world, the New Year begins in April in Japan. April marks the season of the Sakura bloom, the beginning of a new fiscal year for the government, and also the beginning of a new school year for Japanese schools, where hordes of new students invade college campuses around the country. One of those students is Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu). Leaving her family in the isolated northern prefecture of Hokkaido, Uzuki is looking for a new beginning all the way out in Tokyo as a freshman in Musashino University.

Thus marks the beginning of April Story, a gentle fairy tale from director Shunji Iwai that reflects a return to the lighthearted tone of his debut feature Love Letter after the dark, gritty fantasy that was Swallowtail. The 64-minute film chronicles Uzuki's adjustment period at Musashino University. An awkward introduction where she can't seem to explain her reason for choosing Musashino doesn't earn her any new friends, except for a blunt classmate who drags her into the fly fishing club. Even there, she embarrasses herself by naming the wrong Brad Pitt movie that features fly-fishing (clue: he doesn't get killed by a bear at the end). Meanwhile, Uzuki tries to adjust to her new life in Tokyo, but not only can she not fit everything she wants in her apartment, her neighbor won't talk to her with an open door, and she can't even go out without encountering shady characters. However, with one single encounter, Uzuki would be reminded of why she chose Musashino…

Originally conceived as a short film, April Story is, unlike Love Letter and Swallowtail, remarkably simple. In an almost documentary fashion, Iwai simply follows Uzuki around as she deals with a new school and a new environment until her reason for choosing Tokyo and Musashino is finally revealed. Iwai indulges in details rather than narrative, an approach that Iwai has attempted a little too much in his previous films, and also might alienate viewers who prefer their films with plots and character development. But unlike his previous films, where Iwai's self-indulgent use of details detracted from the plot, April Story benefits from immense detail because of its nature as a character study.

In addition to his attention to details, Iwai also sticks close to his personal style, opting for a dreamy visual look that matches the fairy tale tone of his film. From the sights of falling Sakura petals along an empty street to Uzuki running in the rain under a red umbrella, suburban Tokyo has never looked more beautiful. But the real star of the film is Takako Matsu. As the focus of the film, Matsu, who was still at college age at the time, brings a charming innocence to Uzuki. Despite her initial awkwardness and her character's ulterior motives, her character is easy to relate to because she is so awkward. Uzuki may be just another young "fish out of water" in big, bad Tokyo, but it's Matsu's performance that keeps Uzuki a compelling enough character to warrant the focus.

Cynics may expect April Story to be about darker aspects of college life. After all, Iwai depicted the horrors of high school life in All About Lily Chou-Chou and Love Letter. But in the end, April Story is just a simple story about a new beginning that is easy to relate to. No one can nor should expect Iwai to pull off another Love Letter or Swallowtail in a scant 64 minutes. What Iwai did pull off here is a fairy tale come true. But unlike other cinematic fairy tales, the film feels true thanks to its authenticity. Even when Iwai gets a little liberal with saccharine-filled moments towards the end, there is not one false note of sentimentality; every emotion is earned, and smiles are practically guaranteed when the screen goes black. College may not be that sweet in real life, but Iwai and co. will certainly convince you that could be. Just for that, April Story may be one of the best college movies ever made. (Kevin Ma 2006)

Notes: • Takako Matsu attended and graduated from Asia University, located just two train stations away from the real-life Musashino University.
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Panorama Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English subtitles
  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen