Au revoir l’été (Hotori no sakuko)

Japan (2014) Dir. Kôji Fukada

A Japanese film with a French title conjures up a number of possibilities of what it could entail, yet conversely the content of a French film with a Japanese title would be blindingly obvious. In this instance we are given two clues as Au revoir l’été translates into English as Goodbye To Summer while Hotori no sakuko in English is Neighbouring Sakuko.

Only the former has the strongest bearing on the story itself, which is very bare bones. 18 year-old Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) returns to her seaside hometown and her aunt Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta) for a summer break after failing to pass her college entrance exams. There they become embroiled in the daily lives of Mikie’s friends and acquaintances, most of whom share a link with each other.

There’s Ukuchi (Kanji Futurachi), a former criminal now running a clandestine love hotel who is a former lover of both Aunt Mikie and her half sister, and Sakuko’s mother, also named Mikie. Ukuchi employs his awkward nephew Takashi (Taiga), a refugee from the Fukushima disaster who is oblivious to the intentions of girls towards him.

Meanwhile Ukuchi’s university student daughter, Tatsuko (Kiki Sugino), has something of a brittle relationship with him after years of absence and her mother dying because of his illicit shenanigans. Then dashing married lecturer Nishida (Tadashi Otake) arrives from Tokyo, another person with a past – or is that current- connection with Mikie.

Usually I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews but the above synopsis pretty much covers the entire story. So how does Kôji Fukada mange to fill out two hours without actually expanding on the basic plot? To be frank he doesn’t, not at least to any complete satisfaction for that run time. Had it been about twenty minutes shorter and little less indulgent with the arthouse leanings the results would be more edifying.

Not that this is a bad film, just one that meanders a lot, refusing to resolve any of its issues nor offer an answers to the questions it asks. Many films are like this but they at least are intent are asking questions to make us think, Fukada simply puts his film out there and that is that. Maybe he doesn’t need to proffer answers but there is a sense of aimlessness about this film its breezy charm can’t always compensate for.

Other reviews of this film have name checked French auteur Eric Rohmer as an obvious influence on Fukada’s film and while I won’t dissent from that, I will also throw in Korea’s Hong Sang-soo as a reference point, specifically in the natural and cosy chats the characters have in restaurants and coffee shops, sans the awkward zoom-ins and heavy smoking of course!

There are many intimate conversations taking place here, usually serving as exposition or to sow the seeds for the next misadventure, yet none of them actually reveal anything to us about the participants themselves. In other words, the topic is someone else – such as Tatsuko talking to Sakuko and Nishida about her father, or Mikie talking about her sister – leaving us to figure out the cast through their own actions.

It’s an interesting tact which yields mixed results, largely as Fukada can’t seem to decide from whose perspective the story is being viewed. Initially Sakuko is the likely candidate since she had been away from the town since her childhood, but then Mikie takes over as narrator of everyone else’s business, followed by Takashi trying to fit in socially with Sakuko and classmate Chika (Ena Koshino), who may – or may not – like him.

Similarly there is a subplot involving the fallout of Fukushima which one would expect to carry some of the dramatic weight, at least in Takashi’s arc, built around a public protest meeting. For such an important issue (the film was made while the disaster was still fresh) it feels like it is trivialised a little, being used as an admittedly pivotal plot development for Takashi without actually debating the issue at hand.

Yet this is in keeping with the adopted laissez faire attitude of the entire film, the suggestion is that Fukuda is merely presenting the daily life of this laconic town and such incidents are fleeting in the grand scheme of things. Therefore the humour element is also understated and often circumstantial, such as the middle aged respectable businessman who takes a different young lady to Ukuchi’s love hotel every day.  

Because Fukuda approaches everything with such an indifferent and distant eye, it gives the impression of this being a lightweight pabulum affair, which superficially it is, but the deceptive hook is the natural presentation and refusal to raise its energy level anywhere near that of a melodrama. To that end this is very much a “niche” film in terms of courting an audience outside of curious cineastes.

Rather annoyingly, Fukuda shot this film in a 4:3 picture ratio, often justified by some filmmakers as a way to avoid losing the actors in a wide frame, but the coastal setting and the serene rural lake hideaways are just too luscious and inviting not to be shared via a panoramic lens.

Judging the performances is a little hard as the cast are not pushed to do anything challenging acting wise – or perhaps it is that they do a great job of appearing not to act with any sense of purpose. Either way, everyone is highly watchable and competent in their roles. For Fumi Nikaido, now aged 22, her youthful looks have trapped her in the coming-of-age teenager roles but as Sakuko, she is no less charming or effective.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Au revoir l’été except for being too laid back for its own good, washing over you like cool summer breeze that overstays its welcome when you want the sun to come back out. Undemanding but certainly not flaccid, mileage will vary but the gentle allure is hard to resist.