I can't for the love of God remember why I once gave Nobuhiro Yamashita's A Gentle Breeze in the Village [Tennen Kokekkô] a hard pass. I was definitely aware the film existed, everything about it makes it look like the kind of film I'd appreciate and even though Yamashita isn't my all-time favorite director, he has a pretty great track record of putting out solid to great films. Whatever the case, my nose for seeking out excellent films clearly failed me on this one. It's a good thing life sometimes grants you a second chance, it would've been unfortunate to have never experienced this lovely film.
Yamashita is a prominent Japanese drama director, only it's never really obvious which drama niche he's going to take on next. Some of his work crosses over into dry comedy territory, others are straight up emotional dramas, even others go the light-hearted high school/school club route. A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a vintage rural coming of age drama, not unlike Takahata's Only Yesterday or Koreeda's Our Little Sister, closely related to the island dramas (think Hiroki's Locomotive Teacher). It serves an idyllic take on the Japanese countryside that doubles as a welcome couch vacation.
What characterizes these films is that they are relatively light on actual drama. There are of course hurdles to overcome, small setbacks and minor challenges to conquer, but they never feel all that substantial or profoundly dramatic. Films like these are more about spending time with friends, experiencing first-time romance, taking care of your younger siblings, ... all while enjoying the peace and quiet of nature. It's not a lifestyle that I would particularly fancy, but the core strength of these films is that they succeed in making it look appealing, essentially becoming two hours of prime escapism.
Soyo is the oldest in her class. She lives in a small, rural town, where the school only teaches two different groups. She's used to taking care of the other kids, but the dynamic changes when Hiromi moves to their town. He is Soyo's age, but he spent most of his childhood in Tokyo. At first both worlds collide, but Soyo and Hiromi are clearly attracted to each other and Soyo's younger brother sees a role model in Hiromi. While Hiromi teaches Soyo about the joys of the city, Soyo teaches him how to enjoy the countryside while taking care of the kids in the village.
The Japanese countryside looks very appealing on camera, and Yamashita is more than happy to use that to his advantage. Summery greens and blues dominate the color scheme, the camera quietly glides through the lush settings while trailing the characters and the editing is sparse, giving scenes room to breathe. There are a handful of moments when Yamashita turns it up a notch (during the festival scene, or Soyo's walk through Tokyo), but even those scenes are still very calm and composed, just a bit more visually enhanced.
The soundtrack isn't too surprising, but essential to the experience. Yamashita picked soothing piano music and light pop to support the film, which is pretty much what every Japanese rural drama goes for. The ambient sounds are equally important to the film, as nothing says spring/summer in Japan than some chirping cicadas and the sound of the wind rustling in the trees. It's all very expected and in line with well established genre clichés, but I can't deny it's also just extremely effective. It really adds a ton of atmosphere, which is exactly what a good soundtrack's supposed to do.
Performances are great across the board, even though the film doesn't feature any obvious A-listers. Actors like Kaho, Masaki Okada and Kôichi Satô have appeared in quite a few films, but usually in supporting roles. A Gentle Breeze in the Village shows that doesn't really matter, the leads in particular do a great job as they manage to come off as a small but tight group of friends. The secondary cast is on point too, though none of them has a significant impact on the film, they're just there to help move the plot along.
Though A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a typical coming of age drama, I don't think the characters are actually the main attraction of this film, at least not for me. While they're all genuinely pleasant to hang out with, their story and journey isn't really all that special. Growing up in a small town, first love, the pull of the big city ... it's all pretty formulaic. But the atmosphere Yamashita managed to create is quite something else, transporting you dead center into this small, rural town where life is chill and people live their lives at a different pace.
Yamashita's A Gentle Breeze in the Village certainly isn't the only film of its kind, but it's a very accomplished entry in a genre that I felt never received enough international recognition. Japanese dramas have a certain mellow, good-natured flair that is worth cherishing. A film like this may not be the easiest sell as it lacks a strong dramatic undercurrent, but Yamashita compensates with lovely characters, a beautiful setting and tons of charm. Well recommended for fans of the genre, a more than capable introduction for those who want a first taste of Japanese feel-good drama.