In April Story, Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu) is fulfilling the dream of every parent for their child: she is going off to study at a prestigious university. The film begins with her leaving her native northern Hokkaido to the capital of Japan, where she is to begin studies at Musashino University. While it should be the happy start of a new chapter in her life, instead everything feels somewhat sad and stilted.
The film, which gets its name from the time when the university year starts in Japan, is modest in its ambitions, scale and goals. Written and directed by Shunji Iwai, its story is simple and its themes are easily accessible, which is what makes it engaging throughout.
While sometimes it is a bad thing when a film doesn’t aim high, the earnestness of April Story is what makes it work. All it sets out to do is tell a simple story, one that many who have been or will be in a similar situation can relate to and find reassurance from, and do it well. It does all of this well enough to overcome its bigger flaws, such as ambiguous sequences and a somewhat corny ending.
Iwai’s subject, Uzuki, makes for an interesting character study: she is always upbeat and positive despite constantly looking and feeling out of place in her new surroundings as well as regularly coming up against roadblocks and disappointments since moving to Tokyo.
When she first arrives in to her student digs, some of her belongings she has to send home as there is not enough room. This leaves her apartment feeling very small, but also very empty, with no room for her to welcome guests. Her sat alone with barely anything around her serve as a visual reminder of one of the major themes of the film: loneliness.
While Uzuki is ready to make new friends, despite being good natured and congenial, doesn’t find it easy talking to her peers. Her interactions with others can be cringe-inducingly awkward and she never seems able to make any real connections.
She makes just one friend, Saeko Sono (Rumi), though her companionship seems to come from a place of pity. Uzuki tries to reach out to her neighbour, who is just as bad at interacting with others, and she also joins the university’s fly-fishing society even though her interest in the activity is minimal.
It can be very uncomfortable watching such scenes, as they can feel very raw and real. Yet as awkward as these moments can be, it’s vital to pay attention to them all. Every minor detail, from dialogue to visual inserts, provides key clues as to where the story is heading. In particular, the fact that Uzuki’s isolation seems to lead her into visiting the same book shop every day and make purchases that are of no interest to her. It ends up being a big part as to what she is there in Tokyo for.
Brisk at just sixty-four minutes, April Story doesn’t feel especially short, but there are moments which seem superfluous and time-consuming for such a short film. A not insignificant portion of the film has Uzuki sat in a cinema watching a samurai film, where a stranger tries to make a move on her. As it seems not to serve any larger point and is generally unsettling, its presence in the film seems questionable.
April Story was first released in 1998, but looking at it today you would not believe it. First the subject matter it deals with is just as relevant today as back when and recognisable even for people not in a similar situation to Uzuki. More so it is very well made, with clear and crisp photography that doesn’t betray its age and showing a high level of craft. In short Iwai has made a timeless film.
It’s not perfect, but by the time it would take to get worked up about the film’s imperfections, it is over. Able to succinctly tell a universal human tale, April Story stands the test of time and remains just as effective more than two decades on from when it was first made.