To get myself hyped up for my impending trip to Toukyou, I decided to re-watch the Always series. Consisting of Always 三丁目の夕日、Always 続・三丁目の夕日、and Always '64 三丁目の夕日、the first two feel more like one longer movie that's been divided into parts for convenience, while the third takes place six years later and serves as a sort of “and then more stuff happened.” Also, they're great, and you should watch them.
The story is timeless and for the most part could happen anywhere, in any era, but the films take place in Toukyou in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That gets major bonus points from me, and they make good use of the asset, showing a country on the precipice of a new era. Sundresses cross paths with kimono, and bulbous cars race alongside electric trams, down streets lined with pagodas and primitive neon. The titular 3choume is just a few blocks from Tokyo Tower, which ends up a recurring sight throughout the series, proving particularly effective in the first of the three, in which the landmark's construction matches pace with the film's progression.
It's hard to pinpoint a single “main” plot, as they're all fairly mundane, slice-of-life type storylines that intertwine with and support each other. The action opens with Mutsuko (Horikita Maki), nicknamed “Roku,” arriving in the big city from provincial Aomori, fresh out of high school and having signed onto a one-year contract with a car repair shop. Mistakenly believing she's bound for secretarial work in a big automotive company, she's distraught to find that she'll be a live-in wrench wench. The misunderstanding creates some initial friction between her and her new benefactors, but she toughs it out and ultimately comes to find her place in their home. She doesn't get nearly enough screentime, but she has pluck and sweetness to spare, and her attendant Tsugaru-ben is delightfully endearing.
Her employer, whom everybody addresses as Suzuki Auto after his business, is a loving husband and father, and enjoys the respect of much of the neighbourhood. His amicably antagonistic friendship with the old lady from the tobacco shop is especially pleasing, and she always seems to show up at exactly the right moment, just in time to deliver the coolest lines. (“If you're really a man, gamble on your talent!”) She's ever ready with a biting quip, she listens to contemporary music, and she's quick to coach young love through its first hesitant steps. Basically, she's the kind of old person I hope to become: Old, but not old.
Suzuki Auto's gradually growing friendship with struggling novelist Chagawa Ryuunosuke is equally believable. Like everyone else, he initially dismisses him as a disinherited Toudai washout, but comes to acknowledge his kind heart and his commitment to taking care of Junnosuke, an abandoned youngster whom he takes in and starts to care for as his own son. Though meek, mentally scattered, and hilariously awkward, Chagawa turns out to be genuinely talented, and it's Suzuki Auto who most fervently pushes him to be his best, his earlier bullying notwithstanding.
Plenty of moments gave me chills, but if I have one single favourite, it's the sequence in which Chagawa decides to buckle down and seriously contend a prestigious literary award. If he wins, his future as a writer will be cemented, he'll be assured of his ability to support Junnosuke, and he'll be united with the woman of his dreams. Moments after hearing of his resolution, Suzuki Auto's wife Tomoe pledges to take Junnosuke into their home and even cook Chagawa's meals for him, so that he can give the work his full concentration. Word spreads and soon the entire neighbourhood is behind him, giving him their sincerest support and fervently praying for his success.
Just about the entire story takes place in what looks like a roughly one-block radius, with the various characters working side-by-side, stopping to chat when they cross paths in the street, and hitting up local haunts for an evening drink. It's possible I'm overly romanticizing it, and maybe the situation presented in these films doesn't reflect the real 1950s, but I feel like the characters inhabit a moving, breathing place that I would like to live in myself. I love the fact that when everybody I know has a working cell phone, I'm in constant contact with them to the point that it's almost like never being alone. But there's something to be said for the human feeling of value that must have come from having everybody you know be just a short stroll away. To me at least, it's that visceral, unapologetically positive humanity that serves as the story's centre.
Always is all about family and hope. How family can mean a lot of different things to different people, and who your real family is, and the power that it gives you. And also how to rebuild after setbacks, and facing the future with a sense of community. Although the circumstances are sometimes contrived, and these aren't themes that typically resonate with me, damn if it doesn't put them out there with skill, grace, and an utter lack of pretentiousness. It's a truly feel-good story in the best way possible.