I knew little about Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (Hidamari no Kanojo) other than it is a love story with a hint of mystery and the lead actor is one of the dudes from Arashi. I wasn’t expecting much more than a timepass but this is one of my favourite films this year. I’m not going to include any major spoilers but there is a lot to like apart from the plot.
Okuda Kosuke is a junior marketer for RailAD, selling advertising placements in railway stations. At a client presentation he meets his childhood friend, Watarai Mao. She remembers him too and it isn’t long before love blooms again. They are happy together but there is a cloud hanging over the couple. Mao was found wandering naked down the road when she was about thirteen, and has never spoken of her past. Her foster parents are worried that she may have health or psychological problems later in life, and are not sure Kosuke will still accept their girl if things go bad. Kosuke is deeply in love and no obstacle seems big enough to derail his happiness. But when it looks like Mao is getting sick, he starts to ask questions. Things all lead back to their childhood on pretty Enoshima. Is the answer on the island? And who is the old lady who lives up on the hill?
I guessed correctly, and it was a guess, at Mao’s secret past almost immediately. It didn’t detract from the story at all. Clever direction ensures that scenes work beautifully whether you’re wondering “Does she do that because of (the reason)?” or if you’re just thinking she is a bit quirky, or if you don’t notice at all. Once the answer is revealed, the signs and clues planted throughout the film all come together and make sense. The story is really about relationships and how, long after we forget the details, emotional memories can remain. Triggered by a song, an old memento, a glimpse of an old friend, feelings can come flooding back even if we don’t know precisely why. There is also a hint of the supernatural and an otherworldly atmosphere in the island scenes that I found very appealing. The ending is satisfying and moving, but not too neat or predictable.
Matsumoto Jun gives a very appealing and natural characterisation. Kosuke starts off as awkward and apologetic; his charm is derived more from nerdy earnestness than his boyband good looks. His happiness in love is endearing and funny as he can’t hide his infectious smile. Growing more assured as the relationship deepens, he opens up to Mao but she is hiding something from him.
As Kosuke’s anxiety and concern grows, Matsumoto shows the sadness and fear in a well calibrated performance. The romance is shown rather than talked about so the chemistry and emotional range of the actors is paramount. I really wasn’t expecting subtlety and exquisite timing from someone who generally works at the cheesier end of the entertainment spectrum. He was afflicted with some hideous knitwear, but even that seemed kind of sweet since it was Kosuke wearing it.
Ueno Juri looks like a live action anime orphan, with huge eyes and slightly retro clothes hanging off her tiny frame. And like many a film orphan she is resilient, cheerful and a tad offbeat. Her energy and unaffected warmth is a lovely foil for Kosuke’s reserve, and she never overdoes the whimsy. The scene when she and Kosuke meet again is almost silent and feels both romantic and gently playful. They both have such beautiful eyes! Kosuke used to protect and teach Mao and now she helps him. She fixes an error in his budget proposal and works with him on a submission. And she made the first move. The ladies in the festival audience gasped and giggled when Mao called Kosuke by his first name! Ueno Juri is convincing both as the lively independent young woman and the one who doesn’t want to admit what she is afraid of. Her rapport with Matsumoto is charming and I could completely believe in the strength of their bond.
The supporting cast are all excellent. The minor characters add pathos, humour, exposition and drama to the story and director Takahiro Miki balances everything to perfection. I particularly liked Tamayama Tetsuji as the cool Johnny Depp styled Shindo, Mao’s colleague who harboured a crush on her. Kitamura Takumi as young Kosuke and Aoi Wakana as little Mao were also very good, and matched the adult actors closely in appearance and mannerisms.
This is one of the prettiest films I’ve seen in a while. The set interiors are detailed and look lived in by the characters. The lighting is atmospheric and the exterior scenes on Enoshima are gorgeous. The Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” underpins some key moments and voices the yearning of young love. Silence and ambient sounds are also used to excellent effect, placing the actors to the fore but enhancing the sense of place. The dialogue is heartfelt but not predictable. Rather than saying “I love you” over and over, characters show their intimacy in small things like cleaning their teeth at the same time, or talking about their goldfish, or just snuggling up to talk about stuff.
Apart from the romance there is also a thread of endings and beginnings, of things turning full circle only to open in a new loop. It may sound sappy but I found Hidamari no Kanojo really moving and totally beautiful. Yet another DVD release I’ll be waiting for!
The 17th Japanese Film Festival is running in Melbourne until 8 December – details here: