Au revoir l'ete (Hotori no Sakuko): Tokyo Review

Au revoir l'ete (Hatori no Sakuko) - H - 2013
A lack of focus and an excessive padding of philosophical and political undertones veers the film away from its potential of becoming an engaging rite-of-passage drama.

Japanese helmer Koji Fukuda's third French-titled feature revolves around a Tokyo high-school student's week-long late summer sojourn at a beachside town.

With its focus on a youthful rite of romantic passage on the seaside, the abundance of tracking shots of cycling characters, and intellectuals putting on a façade to obscure their messy past and present relationships, Koji Fukuda's second feature certainly takes after Eric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale – a resemblance made obvious by the film's French-language title itself ("Goodbye to the Summer"). While Au revoir l'ete -- which premiered on Oct. 19 on home turf as a competition entry at the Tokyo International Film Festival -- has flashes of the late French auteur's comic flair and sporadic interesting probing of confused lovelorn minds, Fukuda's fourth feature never comes across with a coherent narrative and a focused perspective.

Adding to his failed attempt to locate all this with some kind of a topical backdrop – the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, for example, is given a really superficial treatment here – and Fukuda could certainly bid adieu to hopes of Au revoir repeating the success of his previous (and comparatively effective social drama) hospitalite, a multiple award winner at Asian festivals in 2011 and a home-video release in the U.S. through the indie label Film Movement.

And hospitality seemed to be in great supply as Au revoir begins, when high-school student Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) and her aunt Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta) return to their hometown and settle into the villa they borrowed from a family friend for a short break in late August. The teenager is supposed to be studying for her university entrance exams, while her adult companion has brought along her work translating books about Indonesia as part of her career as a development studies expert; inevitably, neighbors drop by to say hello and gossip, while longtime friends also visit to reminisce about the past.

Being young, listless and blooming, Sakuko hardly touches her books. Instead she begins learning more about her aunt and her mother – step-sisters who actually share the same name, and rivals while growing up – and also their links with the people who keep popping up. The jaded Ukuchi (Kanji Futurachi), for example, has put her shady hoodlum past behind – along, seemingly, his love for either or both Mikies – and toil away as the manager of a local motel; his daughter, Tatsuko (Kiki Sugino, who also co-produces the film), is a university student entangled in a love-hate relationship with her father.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Nishida (Tadashi Otake), a visiting married academic whose straight veneer conceals a lewd, selfish character – as seen in his conversations with Tatsuko (which begins with him acting all aloof and dignified and ends with him inviting the young woman to "have a rest" with him) and also the childish tantrums he threw in a row with Mikie (with whom he might be conducting an affair).

Some of Fukuda's diversion into these threads are somewhat distracting: it's obvious Sakuko is supposed to be the center of the narrative, and it would have been best if Au revoir has stuck to her perspective, so as to see the young woman growing into adulthood as she tries to make sense of the messy social maelstroms whirling around her. After all, this is a young adult in bloom, but at the same time unfortunate enough to find herself surrounded by attractive women whose charm have mesmerized by men who seemingly couldn't really handle their emotions well – a difficult place to learn the trick of leading a mature existence.

And one of those fumbling men is Ukuchi's nephew Takashi (Taiga), a gauche young man who couldn't engage with others well: he is working alongside Ukuchi after he dropped out of school, doesn't really react to Sakuko's subtle acts of affection, and diverts all talk away from discussions about his family. And it will take Fukushima to finally move of Sakuko and Takashi's stilted bond forward – the radiation-leak catastrophe, which leads to Takashi becoming part of the internally exiled trying to escape the fallout – has become, indeed, just a plot point to bring him and Sakuko together.

The twist is moot, however: nothing much has changed for Sakuko, with her week by the waterside never really leaving much impact on her bar the odd insight into how brutal and violent ordinary-looking people could stoop to – and how the past, such as Ukuchi's and Mikie's, could not be easily shaken off.

Appearances deceive, she acknowledges in the non-chalant manner which defines her throughout the film; ironically, the same could be said of Au revoir in general, as both the style (which itself is undermined by a few off-focused tracking shots) and substance (all those lines about philosophy, art and all do not really add more layers of meanings to the story) are found wanting. It's exactly like a scene in one of the film's final third, as the pair of uncertain young friends end the night in a club where a mime artist perform comic routines to the sound of Indonesian gamelan music – it's yet another ill-fitting episode to a shapeless film.

Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: Wa Entertainment Inc
Director: Koji Fukada
Cast: Fumi Nikaido, Mayu Tsuruta, Taiga, Kanji Futurachi, Kiki Sugino
Producer: Kiki Sugino, Koji Fukuda
Executive Producers: Kousuke Ono, Makoto Adachi, Mikiyo Miyata
Screenwriter: Koji Fukuda
Director of Photography: Kenichi Negishi
Editor: Koji Fukada
Music Director/Sound Designer: Jo Keita
International Sales: Wa Entertainment Inc
In Japanese
125 minutes