Clearly designed as a divertissement after his epic “Swallowtail Butterfly,” Shunji Iwai’s latest, “April Story,” is an almost perfect miniature of mood and feelings, the cinematic equivalent of a haiku poem. Immaculately lensed tale of a young woman settling into university life in Tokyo, but with a secret agenda, is specialized fare even for arthouses, but a natural fest and tube item. Film gets its international premiere with a short run at London’s ICA Cinema, double-billed with Iwai’s 1993 TV pic “Fried Dragon Fish,” both distributed by U.K. newcomer Asian Film Library in association with Iwai’s company, Rockwell Eyes.
Iwai’s pics are all different in flavor, and thisone, though sharing some of the metaphysical feel of “Love Letter” (1995), which first drew him to international attention, is far simpler. Its deliberate combo of innocence, visual beauty and simplicity may not appeal to all auds — and certainly separates it from the mass of nihilistic, gun-toting indies by many young Japanese filmers — but on its own terms it is a small gem.
Shy Uzuki (Takako Matsu), from Hokkaido in Japan’s far north, arrives in Tokyo in the fall, when the peach blossom is falling, to enroll at Musashino U. She moves into a lonely apartment, feels uneasy introducing herself to fellow students (who think she’s a bit of a hick) and is befriended by a straight-talking, edgy student, Saeko (Rumi), with whom she joins a fly-fishing club.
Iwai gradually submerges the viewer in Uzuki’s world — riding her bike, reading in the park, fleeing from a weirdo in a movie theater — as well as the trivia of someone adapting to a new life, climate, city, group of people and set of ways. She tries to make contact with a reclusive female neighbor, and repeatedly visits a bookstore. Only from the midpoint on, as her past life is sketched in for the viewer, do we gradually understand her reason for attending the university.
It’s a slim picture, only just over an hour long, but beautifully shaped to the final reels, which are both funny and moving, set in April showers, and with a typical Iwai kick in the tail. Playing by the cast is charming and unaffected, especially by young local star Matsu, who’s cuter than a button. Pic is sweet without being saccharine, uncynical without being naive; as a portrait of a young person’s untrammeled emotions, it recalls ’60s European cinema in its freshness and innocence.
Tech credits are top-class, with Iwai’s natural use of widescreen broadening the film’s poetry rather than exposing the material’s narrative. Music is mostly gentle and lyrical, dominated by piano.