Based on a Saigan Ryohei manga that first appeared in 1973 and is still running in Weekly Big Comic Original
, Yamazaki Takashi’s Always - Sunset On Third Street
(Always - Sanchome no Yuhi
) is, first and foremost, a meticulous recreation of downtown Tokyo, circa 1958.
This is not the usual studio set, with the occasional period car rumbling through, but a total urban environment, painstakingly rendered down to the last rusty store sign and well-thumbed manga. In one stunning scene, what looks to be a crane shot takes in the length of a busy street, filled with period cars, streetcars, shops and people, as well as one character pursuing another. The film is a composite of detailed set decoration, state-of the-art CG effects and carefully restored period footage, seemingly filmed using a 1950s color process like Tohoscope (a Japanese version of Eastmancolor) with its soft, clean, nostalgic glow.
Yamazaki and his team transport us to a Japan where urban dwellers still lived in real neighborhoods, television was the latest electronic marvel - and the economy was about to soar skyward, just like Tokyo Tower itself.
The film’s neighborhood is almost within spitting distance of Tokyo Tower - which means that it is fabulously expensive real estate today, but its residents are mostly good, working-class folks, like bluff Suzuki Norifumi (Tsutsumi Shinichi), who runs a small auto repair shop, and his petite, perky wife Tomoe (Yakushimaru Hiroko), who has her hands full with their rambunctious son, Ippei. A new addition to this happy household is Mutsuko (Horikita Maki), nicknamed “Roku,” a fresh-faced country girl from Aomori, who has come to the big city expecting to work at a big company named “Suzuki Auto” - and barely hides her disappointment when she discovers it to be a glorified garage.
Across the street is the flyblown candy store run by Norifumi’s childhood pal Chagawa Ryunosuke (Yoshioka Hidetaka), a scruffy failed novelist, now reduced to writing stories for kid’s magazines. Ryunosuke frequents a small bar run by the beauteous, worldly wise Hiromi (Koyuki), for whom he carries a hopeless torch.
As the film begins, Hiromi finds herself stuck by a so-called friend with a ragamuffin boy, Junnosuke, whose parents have gone missing. She palms him off to Ryunosuke, who complains about the imposition (“You’re nothing but a stranger to me” he tells the boy at every opportunity).
There are no secrets on Third Street - and no strangers, either. Even Ryunosuke, who today would probably be locked alone in a room with his computer, has a place in the neighborhood scheme of things, as do Junnosuke and Ippei, who would now be commuting between their cram school and their game consoles, and Roku, whose present-day equivalents are Third World women scratching out livings in the underworld economy.
All is not sweetness and light, however. Saying she has been discarded by her family, Roku tearfully rejects the Suzuki’s offer of a trip home for New Year’s. Meanwhile, Ryunosuke’s love for Hiromi goes achingly unfulfilled, while Junnosuke’s ties to Ryunosuke - strengthened when the boy discovers that his guardian is also a famous (to him) writer - are threatened from an unexpected source.
These and other plot gears are familiar from many a melodrama, but they mesh smoothly, if loudly, enough. The performances of the kids are charmingly naturalistic, while Koyuki, Tom Cruise’s love interest in The Last Samurai
, excels playing ex-bar girl Hiromi, whose weary shrug and sly, sexy grin would have done Marlene Dietrich proud.
The world of her film is a golden field of dreams - a nice place to visit, though there’s no going back there - save in Yamazaki’s hard drive of masssima potenza