On January 21st, the next installment of the popular “Always Sunset on Third Street” franchise will be hitting theaters across Japan. While my film nerd desk partner, Jeffrey, dislikes the series, the moderate film afficionado will enjoy these heartwarming, uplifting, and aesthetically pleasing films. The third film has much to look forward to, as it returns with all the familiar characters, another eventful period in Tokyo history, and 3D.
The “Always” series takes place in downtown Tokyo in the 1950s as Japan recovers from WWII. With the iconic Tokyo Tower literally growing in the backdrop, we are introduced to the Suzuki family. The father is a war veteran running an auto shop. While his shop is still small, he supports his wife and his adolescent son, dreaming of a prosperous future. Also on Third Street are a failed writer named Chagawa, living in a tiny, run down apartment, and his love interest, a beautiful bar maid, among many other colorful characters.
The first two films, released in 2005 and 2007, followed the Suzuki family as they accept a hopeful teenage girl, Mutsuko, from Aomori as an apprentice for their auto shop. Mutsuko expects to work in an office in the big city, but actually ends up working in a greasy factory, under the frame of a car. While she is disappointed, she eventually finds fulfillment in building and shaping Mr. Suzuki’s business and contributing to the changing community around her.
Across the street, Chagawa, despite struggling to make ends meet and knowing nothing about child-rearing, accepts taking care of the bar maid’s friend’s orphaned boy, in an effort to impress her. Chagawa gradually grows attached to the child despite the inevitable separation that awaits.
However, the “Always” series’ biggest attraction is not the plot, but the setting and the characters. The 1950s holds a very special place in Japanese people’s hearts, similarly to the way it does for Americans. The 1950s were a simpler time. Difficult social problems like drugs, gender issues, abortion, and economic inequality didn’t exist. Still, Japan’s 1950s were a time of struggle, unlike the American “Leave it to Beaver.” The physical and emotional devastation of World War II was still fresh. People worked hard together to rebuild Japan and look hopefully into the future.
The “Always” series has made a tremendous effort in recreating the visual feel of 1950s Tokyo, which has a uniquely Japanese retro aesthetic. Small, crowded, and often unpaved streets; cigarette shops; the novelty of home television sets; ice vendors before the advent of refrigerators; three wheeled cars; and of course the half-built Tokyo Tower.
The side characters are also beautifully depicted. Particularly memorable to me was Dr. Takuma. The children know him as Dr. “Akuma,” which means “devil,” because he administers painful shots. One night, Dr. Takuma passes out and sees a hallucination of his wife who died during the war. A police officer who comes across him on the street passes off what he saw as a vision that a tanuki showed him. The scene is a poignant reminder of the emotional trauma people still felt. Simultaneously, it’s quaint to picture that there were still wild tanuki roaming through Tokyo and people would attribute a drunken hallucination to traditional mythology so recently as fifty years ago.
The third film, titled “Always Sunset on Third Street ’64,” takes place in 1964, five years after the previous film. Tokyo is bustling with preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Mutsuko is in love, Chagawa loses his father, and his boy is now in high school. However, while our characters have grown a little older, the hope and passion are “always” the same on Third Street.
“Always,” like a good Christmas movie, is optimistic and the characters are familiar. On top of which, the quality of each installment has been consistent. So, I’m genuinely looking forward to catching “Always ’64″ whenever I get the chance to see it.