With a running time of only 64 minutes, April Story is somewhere between an average short and feature length, which has perhaps contributed to it being overlooked among Shunji Iwai’s impressive oeuvre. It’s not as astonishing as the bleak and insane teenage film All About Lily Chouchou or the social polemic Swallowtail Butterfly but much better than it could have been in a scant 64 minutes. Not many director can pull off a fish-out-of-water story combined with romance whimsy as effortlessly as Iwai without losing its authenticity or succumbing to sloppiness.
April marks the season of the Sakura bloom and the beginning of a new school year for Japanese schools, when hordes of freshmans flood college campuses around the country. One of them is Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu), who leaves behind the comfort and intimacy of her family in the isolated northern prefecture of Hokkaido to embark on a new beginning as a new student in Musashino University in Tokyo. Iwai proceeds to chronicle Nireno’s attempt to fit in the new school and new environment in an almost documentary fashion. Much of the film is seen from the point of view of Nireno, enabling the audience to relate to her as a country girl in the big bag Tokyo. An awkward and uninteresting introduction in the new class doesn’t earn her any new friend, except a blunt tomboyish girl called Saeko, although this seems more like a friendship of convenience. Saeko is keen to recruit Nireno for the fly fishing club and she passively agrees, only to embarrass herself there by naming the wrong Brad Pitt movie that feature fly fishing. Meanwhile, her social life outside of university is not more promising, as her neighbour only talks to her in a reserved manner through a closed door, and she has an encounter with a pervert while watching movie alone in an empty cinema.
Cynics will be quick to expect April Story to unravel the dark aspects of the college life, but the final 15 minutes slowly reveal Nireno’s ulterior motive to pursue a further study in Tokyo, switching it to a gentle fairy tale come true. Iwai may seem to get a little over the top with saccharine-filled moments, but overall the sentimentality strikes the right note and it will leave all but the most cynical viewer smiling as the credits roll. Takako Matsu, who was recently celebrated for the role as vengeance-seeking school teacher in Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, nails the character of overly sweet and naive Nireno perfectly. Her understated performance not only makes Nireno a relateable protagonist, but also serves as the right catalyst for Iwai’s subtle tonal shift from realistic drama to romantic whimsy.
Iwai opts for details rather than narrative, which might alienate viewers who expect a mind screwing film in the manner of Swallowtail Butterfly or All About Lily Chouchou, but this approach is actually consistent with the film’s nature as a character study. Iwai is the master of everyday incidences and he let those anticlimactic sequences speak for themselves. The film which Nireno watches alone in the cinema is custom made by Iwai, which feels so authentic and stylistic that a number of Kurosawa fan have been fooled. He further reinforces his attention to details by providing the film with dreamy surreal look that matches the fairy tale tone. Tokyo, despite all the hints of urban alienation, has never looked more beautiful with the sights of falling Sakura petals along a quiet street and Nireno running in the rain under a red umbrella. The camerawork also consists of a series of stationary longshots to achieve that passivity and indifference characteristic of Nireno.