A Story of Yonosuke clocks in at 160 minutes, which is a good chunk of time to spend with the title character and his friends. I stared that number down for a while and finally decided it was worth a go. I’ve sat through much, much longer movies, so what’s two-and-a-half hours, give or take?
After getting into the rhythm of the film in the first 20 minutes, I was somehow never bored. Your mileage and patience may vary with this film. It’s an unassuming portrait of someone who’s goofy but pretty unremarkable. We first see him as just some college kid in a crowd in 1987. And yet something about A Story of Yonosuke hooked me, delighted me, and made me smile.
By the end, I was unexpectedly moved.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
A Story of Yonosuke (Yokomichi Yonosuke | 横道世之介)
Director: Shuichi Okita
Release Date: February 23, 2013 (Japan)
I’m getting to that age where I look back fondly on college. I still keep in touch with a lot of good friends, though I’ve lost touch with a lot of people who I still think about. This is why A Story of Yonosuke resonated with me so much. As I look back at those friends from college, I think of good times and weird moments and their defining characteristics. There’s nostalgia to it, sure, but it’s more about how great certain people were and how I wish I’d kept in touch. I’m curious where they are now, and I hope they’re doing well. I also wonder how those people remember me, if they do. I wonder if I was as gawky as Yonosuke in this movie. (I probably was. Maybe still am.)
So who is Yonosuke? He’s a kid from Nagasaki played by Kengo Kora, and he’s almost always smiling and carefree. His full name is Yonosuke Yokomichi, which everyone finds pretty funny. I wish I knew more about Japanese culture so I understood the joke. Maybe it’s like Pippi Longstocking? Maybe it’s like Jonathan Johnson? When Yonosuke first moves into an apartment for college and introduces himself, an older neighbor says it’s like a comedian’s name. Shoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka), a girl Yonosuke will eventually become friends with, hears his name and can’t stop laughing. He looks briefly hurt by it, but only briefly — he’s used to it by now, and he gets it.
I mentioned a rhythm to the movie that I needed to get acclimated to. Part of that was getting acquainted with Yonosuke as a character. He’s such an oddball who doesn’t seem comfortable in his own skin. His posture varies from question mark-shaped to tilde-shaped, his whole body a kind of articulated wire of awkwardness. While sitting alone in a cafe, he tries to smell his own armpits to check his BO. His attempt at subtlety makes it all so unsubtle. He’s not the best at making new friends or meeting new people, but when people finally warm to him, they see that there’s a lot to like.
The film goes back and forth between 1987 and the present. We see where these characters wind up in life, and how little events in their lives cause them to think back to that first year or so in college. That’s sort of how memory works — the inexplicable trigger brings you back to the moment. For Marcel Proust, it was the taste of a madeleine; for one of Yonosuke’s friends, it was seeing a sweaty guy on the street. Using these jumps in time, there are two kinds of stories at work in A Story of Yonosuke — a coming-of-age story and a nostalgia story. One is about a boy moving forward into adulthood, the other is adults looking back to their youth. They braid together rather well.
A Story of Yonosuke is a funny movie, but in a strange way. Some scenes are bluntly, immediately hilarious because they’re so bizarre, like when Yonosuke and his first college pal join a samba camp. Together they gyrate in a field as livestock grazes in the background. Other jokes build, like a scene with another friend that involves a walk to the park at night. None of the comedy is cruel. It would be easy for another movie to mock the Yonosuke character and make him the butt of every joke. A cynical filmmaker might have looked down on Yonosuke as a spaz or a pathetic loser. But director Shuichi Okita identifies with Yonosuke and the people who care about him. I sense that he sees a lot of good friends in the character and possibly even bits of himself.
Shuichi uses long takes in a pretty fascinating way. They bring out the heightened awkwardness of Yonosuke in certain scenes, but they also invite naturalism to the performances, a tenderness even. In these long takes, we watch characters become close to Yonosuke, and also the slow dissolve of Yonosuke’s boyishness. Picture the act of thawing caught on camera.
There are two shots in A Story of Yonosuke that really stood out for me. Both involve Shuichi’s use of the long take as well as some great camera movement. During one of these shots, we get the awkwardness, we get the naturalism, we watch it turn into tenderness, and then we get a moment of wonder. The scene is funny because it’s so innocent and childlike, but it’s touching for the same reasons. The other shot involves Yonosuke just being himself, and by being himself completely he’s also coming into his own. That’s all I can really say about that shot, but I think by the end of both of these shots, Shuichi provides a portal into the way that Yonosuke sees the world.
So much of A Story of Yonosuke is about its tone of unassuming sweetness. I can see accusations of sentimentality after one crucial scene in the movie that takes place in the present, but I think A Story of Yonosuke handles itself so quietly that 1) the sentimentality isn’t painful and 2) it functions as part of the larger narrative about a fondness for good people in our lives. The moment is sentimental, but it’s also in keeping with who Yonosuke is as a character and what he means to others.
Sometimes when I’m feeling really low, I read George Saunders’s story/essay “Manifesto: A Press Release from PRKA.” It begins as if it’s a statement by a terrorist organization, but it quickly reveals itself as a declaration of sympathy for the whole of humankind, in which people avoid harming others out of love and a shared sense of moral responsibility. There’s one line that always gets me (apart from the ending). It’s about remembering an old friend you don’t see anymore and how great it was to know him. I thought about that line a lot after finishing A Story of Yonosuke, and then I thought about those old friends.
Maybe if I’m feeling down in the future and I have 160 spare minutes, I’ll watch A Story of Yonosuke. I may even be willing to make time for it.
[A Story of Yonosuke will screen on Saturday, July 13th. For tickets and more information, click here.]