Nipponese nostalgia for the post-WWII era that saw optimism reborn is portrayed with CGI spice and too much sugar in “Always — Sunset on Third Street,” a family-oriented meller. Based on a popular manga and shot on Toho’s soundstages, visually delightful pic lovingly recreates the ramshackle streets of Tokyo, circa 1958. While familial disruption and problems of big-city living are universal, reference points are decidedly local, and emotions don’t always translate. Pic opened locally Nov. 5 to vigorous biz, but offshore play looks remote, especially as the movie is too commercial for most fests.
In 1958, with the impending completion of Tokyo’s TV broadcasting tower as a symbol of Japan’s escalating post-war economic recovery, rural schoolgirl Mutsuko (Maki Horikita) arrives from the provinces to begin her first job with Suzuki Auto. Initially impressed by meeting company “president” Norifumi Suzuki (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), Mutsuko is shocked to discover her workplace is actually a shabby auto repair shop in Tokyo’s down-at-heel Yuhi district.
Suzuki is a bad-tempered employer but Mutsuko is welcomed by his wife, Tomoe (Hiroko Yakushimaru), and their impish 5-year-old son, Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu). One of Ippei’s favorite haunts is a five-and-dime store managed by struggling serial writer Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka). Regarding now-successful writers like Nobel-prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, as overrated, Chagawa wants to be more than a hack churning out sci-fi yarns and selling cheap toys on the side.
When alluring newcomer Hiromi (Koyuki) opens a sake bar in the area, she gathers clientele quickly — in dramatically compressed manga style — but also finds herself lumbered with Junnosuke (Kenta Suga) the orphaned offspring of the bar’s previous tenant. Drunk, and smitten by Hiromi, Chogawa accepts custodianship of the boy.
Pic follows each character as their lives intersect and diverge but has a half-baked feel, as if auds are expected to already know the story. (Given the source material’s enduring popularity, this may well be the case for some.) Time, and economic improvement, is marked by the Suzuki household’s technological acquisitions, with a washing machine, a refrigerator and, of course, a TV comprising the holy trinity.
Despite the distinctly melancholy resolution to some strands, with actions that will be baffling, or at least unconvincing, to non-Japanese auds, pic maintains an upbeat tone and revels in its nostalgic hue. Cultural references and in-jokes abound, with Yasujiro Ozu’s “Ohayo” (1959) and Keisuke Kinoshite’s “Carmen Comes Home” (1951) being the most obvious.
Helmer Takashi Yamazaki has cred in both the movie (“Juvenile,” “Returner”) and gamer (“Onimusha 3: Demon Siege”) worlds, and uses acquired skills from both to advantage, creating a cohesive mixture of live action, archival footage and the healthy support of CGI to recreate Tokyo’s recent past.
Perfs are stiff, as if thesps are playing out roles that are too cherished to allow interpretation. Lensing is top quality and complements pic’s real star, the production design.