April Story

Shigatsu Monogatari
1998 / 67m - Japan
Drama, Romance
April Story poster

April Story [Shigatsu Monogatari] is one of the earlier Shunji Iwai films I watched. Back then it was a rather random pick-up, in part because the film was pretty short and I was still trying to find my way around Japanese cinema. It's not one of Iwai's most famous works, but despite it being a little hard to track down, it is a film that has a dedicated following and has very few detractors. I will admit that a lot of it had faded over the years, but that's exactly what rewatches are for. I'm happy to say April Story won me over just like it did the first time.

screencap of April Story [Shigatsu Monogatari]

The thing about April Story is that it is the kind of film that is bound to fade into the background after a while. It is very light on drama, there aren't too many moments that leave a strong impact and while aesthetically pleasing, it's certainly not the most eye-catching film in Iwai's oeuvre. None of those are inherently bad qualities, but it does mean that even though the film left me with a very warm and comforting glow, it's a film that is more occupied with offering a pleasant experience while watching, rather than something to chew on, think about, or rave about afterward.

Iwai (and his gang, because I like including Isao Yukisada) have a knack for light romance and drama. They're certainly capable of more and their range is much broader than just the feel-good stuff, it's just that nobody seems to do it quite like them. April Story is probably the frilliest film Iwai ever made, with a sweet little romance at its core, and quite a few, small, inconsequential (but oh so very important) moments of happiness scattered throughout, which give the film a very uplifting and wholesome feel. And amidst a sea of misery porn, that's a very welcome diversion.

Uzuki is a young student who moved from the countryside to Tokyo to start her college education. Leaving home is a huge step for her, living on her own in a city where she knows nobody is daunting. But she doesn't let that get her down. She quickly befriends a girl who drags her along to an after-school fishing club, she reaches out to her neighbor and she runs into an old love from her hometown. Slowly she begins to adapt to her new environment and the more she opens herself up to these new experiences, the easier it becomes to settle down.

screencap of April Story [Shigatsu Monogatari]

It's not that April Story is an extremely colorful film, but Iwai does love to play with light and even the rainy scenes have a sense of brightness and warmth to them that helps to give it that pleasant visual glow. The camera work and framing are very polished, small dashes of color liven up the visuals, Iwai makes smart use of the natural settings (it's spring, so you can check off some cherry blossoms moments) and the quality is very consistent throughout. April Story doesn't just look pleasant, the cinematography is also very functional and part of the core appeal of the film.

The soundtrack matches the cinematography pretty well. While I could say that Iwai sticks to conventions pretty tightly, he is in part responsible for establishing those very conventions, so that would be a moot critique. He does this type of ethereal and dreamy string/piano music really well, and it adds that extra layer of sweetness that makes it all the easier to swallow. It's a lovely score, not one that really jumps out by itself maybe, but it is extremely polished, it does its thing and it really excels at supporting the mood of the film in the best way possible.

The star of the film is Takako Matsu. It's a bit weird to see her in such a sweet, demure, and innocent role after Confessions, it's maybe even more remarkable that she is able to pull it off so effortlessly. She's a superb guide through this cute little drama though, someone who is extremely easy to identify with. Just a very likable and agreeable character. The rest of the cast is solid, but none of them have very expanded parts, nor the power to make a lasting impact. This really is Matsu's time to shine, and she grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

screencap of April Story [Shigatsu Monogatari]

April Story is the kind of film that will appeal to people who can appreciate a small slice of life drama, one that chases good vibes and moments of subtle happiness. If you want something more substantial, darker, or meatier, this film will no doubt disappoint. The latter half of the film is a bit more focused on the romance, the first half on the drastic setup, but both parts flow very well together and reinforce each other perfectly. The ending is pretty open (though it's not difficult to imagine where the film wants your mind to go), so don't worry too much about unpleasant surprises popping up.

Light and inconsequential it may be, April Story is simply a delight. Some may see it as an escape from everyday life, but underlying the film's rather carefree worldview hides a point of view and mentality that is anything but trivial. The film quickly won me over the second time around, thanks to the polished cinematography, a strong lead performance, a pleasant score, and some poignant moments. If you like Japanese dramas, in particular the lighter kind, this cute little Iwai film is a must-see. I'm not sure if it's all that easy to find these days, but it's really worth the effort.