[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
In the opening scene of Shunji Iwai’s April Story, a college-bound young woman moves from rural Hokkaido to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. Once she arrives at her new apartment, however, she quickly realizes that it is too small to comfortably accommodate all of the personal belongings that her family shipped over. Thus, amidst a shower of sakura petals, she is forced to carefully sort through the material embodiment of her past, picking and choosing which objects she should carry with her as she transitions into adulthood… and which she should discard.
It’s a clever introduction to the movie’s central conflict. Our protagonist claims to be cheerful by nature, but her timid behavior betrays her shyness and social anxiety. Indeed, she seems to be intimidated by her peers, who are—from her own biased point-of-view, anyway—far more interesting an academically impressive than she is; some of them, for example, participate in sports at a championship level, while others studied abroad, and are therefore fluent in multiple foreign languages. She, on the other hand, barely passed her entrance exams, and only applied to this particular school in order to pursue an older classmate that she secretly admires.
Although her motivations are undeniably immature, Iwai never judges his heroine for her flaws—character development, after all, has to begin somewhere. "Growing up," he argues, does not necessarily require abandoning one’s previous interests and goals; occasionally, stubbornly clinging to familiar desires can lead to unexpected opportunities and experiences.
Of the three Iwai films screened at Japan Society this weekend, April Story is undoubtedly the most optimistic and gentle. A more cynical viewer, in fact, might criticize it for being excessively sentimental.
And my rebuttal would be: “What’s wrong with a bit of mushy, inoffensive wholesomeness?”