Busu (1987) by Jun Ichikawa

Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) moves from Izu to Tokyo, starting at a city school and joining her aunt’s geisha house in Asakusa. Given the name Suzume, she begins work helping the other geisha and learning the dances and entertaining duties of the house. Meanwhile at school she struggles to fit in, finally finding a role for herself when she is asked to dance at the school festival.

“Busu”, written by Makiko Uchidate and directed by Jun Ichikawa, is a coming-of-age story dealing with ideas of tradition meeting contemporary society. The sequence of Suzume running along behind the rickshaws through inner-city Tokyo shows this peculiar blend of long-standing ritual in a modern setting. The depiction of high-school life is enjoyable, as well as Suzume’s sense of isolation after her move. Ichikawa’s direction is endlessly creative, allowing the character-driven story to flow without cleaving to any particular plot. Suzume’s experiences at high-school and at the geisha house are realistic without resorting to melodrama. There is a potential love interest in the athletic classmate, but whatever connection there is between them is left largely unexplored. The score is varied, with pop song interludes accompanying montages of Suzume exploring the city. It is a film that emphasises Suzume’s point of view, her wide-eyed innocence, her sense of isolation, her hopes and fears. Occasionally seemingly incidental details, such as armed police storming into a building, or a woman accosting what we presume is an unfaithful lover, all help to establish a lived in world, one in which Suzume is keenly aware of the dangers.

When she comes to perform her dance at the school show, the audience are completely behind her. This symbol of the traditional values she has been taught seems to be a life-affirming moment for her, connecting her with her family and the past. In a sense Suzume’s story is timeless, the difficulties she faces in fitting in and finding her own way through the various familial and cultural pressures one that has been told many times throughout the generations. Her performance perhaps suggesting that this cycle, of searching for independence before finally settling on a balance between freedom and restraint, is one that is destined to be endlessly repeated. The final moments of the film see Suzume reunited with her mother having experienced life for herself she appears comfortable and confident in relating to her as a woman.

Leaving on the 15th Spring (2013) by Yasuhiro Yoshida

The Daito islands are a small archipelago hundreds of miles south-east of Okinawa. As the islands have no high-school, almost all 15 year olds leave the island to attend school on the main island. After her senior leaves, Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi) becomes the eldest middle-schooler, due to depart the following spring. Her father, Toshiharu (Kaoru Kobayashi), lives on the island with her, along with her elder sister Mina (Saori Koide) and her sister’s child Mei. Her mother Akemi (Shinobu Atake) meanwhile lives on the main island, with speculation that she is estranged from her husband. Yuna is part of a folk-group, playing the traditional Shinsan instrument and singing, which gives her a unique insight into the cultural heritage of her island.

Writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshida was shown a 20-minutes documentary on the inhabitants of the Daito islands by his producer and tasked with making a film depicting their story. The film certainly succeeds in showing the beauty of the islands and the tranquility of the rustic lifestyle. We learn about the sugar-cane that grow, hear traditional songs, see the stunning vistas, glimpse the fishing and agricultural industries that predominate, and enjoy the seasonal festivals in a film that depicts a full year of island life. Throughout the film also keeps a firm focus on the emotional journey of Yuna and her family. While described as a romance, Yuna’s relationship with Kento, a boy from the north island, is only a small part of her journey, with the best part of the film concerning her relationship with her family. The central performance from Ayaka Miyoshi, who also learnt to play the Shinsan and sing in the traditional style, is a wonderful portrayal of a young woman learning to appreciate what is important in life. The supporting cast, in particular Kaoru Kobayashi as her father, also bring a great emotional depth to the story, showing both the enjoyable and difficult aspects of island life. The film’s mix of the traditional and modern sensibilities is highlighted in the score, which features a romantic backdrop of piano and strings, alongside poppy love songs and the folk-music that bookends the drama.

“Leaving on the 15th Spring” is a film that focusses on a particular community with a somewhat peculiar problem, that of young people needing to leave the island in their 15th year. However, it provides the perfect backdrop for a coming-of-age drama with relatable themes. Chief amongst these is the desire for independence clashing with a sense of familial responsibility. Yuna is excited to leave the small island, but fears cutting the ties with her father and sister. The distance between Minami Daito and the main island is emphasised in the relationship between Toshiharu and Akemi, whose relationship is of equal importance in the story. It brings to life the fragility of human connection, something we also see in Mina’s relationship with Mei’s father, which is also troubled. The distance between people, both geographically and emotionally, is at the heart of the film. It also questions the nature and importance of responsibility to our ancestors or our culture. The islanders are protective of their traditions, shown in a brief political scene in which the community council debate their opposition to the TPP agreement. Yuna also feels the weight of obligation to her father and family, wondering how to balance this with her own wishes to leave. The farewell festival that Yuna performs at is a poignant mix of melancholy at what we leave behind when we become adults, and the hope that we carry forward with us.