“Au Revoir l’Été” by Kôji Fukada is a little gem of a movie, simple and yet multilayered and visually enchanting. It is a story of transition to adulthood, the Japanese title “Hotori no Sakuko” can be translated “Sakuko on the edge” and this is exactly it.
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Sakuko (Fumi Nakaido) is a 18 year old student who has just failed the University entrance exam and is going for a short holiday to a small seaside resort with her aunt Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta). They are both looking to get some quiet and constructive time out of this holiday; Sakuko needs to study and prepare for her next session of exams and Mikie is working on a translation. At the resort, we get to know Ukichi (director’s regular, Kanji Furutachi), Mikie’s ex lover, who runs a hotel in town, his student daughter Tetsuko (Kiki Sugino) and his nephew Takashi (Taiga), a runaway survivor of the Fukushima disaster who helps him with the hotel chores. Everything seems to be perfect and by the book, the sun, the sea, the bicycle runs, the lazy summer days, but slowly Sakuko starts to notice something slightly off. Nothing is really as it looks and people around her are hiding some opaque sides. Under the respectable façade, Ukichi’s hotel is in reality a Love Hotel where pale underage girls sell their bodies to businessmen, Mikie is in a relation with a married and sleazy University professor who loves seducing his students and even Takashi – who everybody pities for his dramatic past – has a very personal take on his exile that nobody has ever cared to listen to.
Sakuko takes everything in, observes and elaborates. In an amusing central episode of the movie, the characters are reunited around dinner, for a birthday celebration and discuss about love and relationships and pass rather quickly from embarrassment to rage, from happy karaoke to physical violence; all this under the eyes of a totally silent and puzzled Sakuko.
Sakuko and Takashi are “on the edge” of the age of disillusion and desperately grasp and hold on to that little fragment of childhood still left in them, forming a bond that is sincere and far from hormonal. Like two children, they cycle, play with the fireworks, run away from home when the pressure becomes unbearable, only to return home compliantly the morning after. At the end of summer, Sakuko will go back to Tokyo a different person and nothing will be the same again, but the quiet ending of the movie, without superfluous twists or unwanted morals suggests that in the end, well … c’est la vie!
The French title spoon-feeds a Rohmer inspiration and yes, there are all the French director’s aesthetic elements, a quiet seaside town, dreamy young girls in pastel dresses on bicycles, sound of crickets in the sunny afternoons, but common places aside, this movie is intrinsically Japanese in the way it confronts some social themes, the guilt and shame of a recent past and the attitude toward women. All this is conveyed with natural and honest dialogues and a graceful pace that sometimes reminds of Koreeda of “Still Walking”.
Fukada Kôji has written and directed this movie with a gentle and measured touch and the choice of the 4:3 format, instead of taking millimeters away from the viewers, donates instead a special grace and intimacy to the images (surely helped by the square-empowering Instagram era).
“Au Revoir l’Été” was presented in 2013 at Tokyo International Film Festival and will be followed in 2016 by “Harmonium”, a film that couldn’t look more different from its previous but that in reality is an extreme and dramatic elaboration of the same theme. Adult life is a multifaceted path of bad surprises and lies that sometimes – like in “Harmonium” – can spin into a crescendo of emotional chaos. But Sakuko doesn’t know this yet and “Au Revoir l’Été” sits firmly on the classic “coming of age” ground. It might well be one of the tritest themes in cinema, but the perfect balance of freshness and familiarity prevents it from feeling stale.