Summer Blooms (2017) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Hatsumi (Aki Asakura) is working at a noodle restaurant which is soon to close. While on paid leave looking for a new job, she is spotted by one of her former students, Kaede (Yuriko Kawasaki) whom she helps out of an abusive relationship. Hatsumi is later courted by one of the restaurant’s regular customers, Totaru (Takahiro Miura), who has been a distant admirer for some time. Hatsumi finds herself unable to fully accept Totaru, still struggling with memories of her ex-boyfriend , Kentaro, who died suddenly three years before. On a visit to her former boyfriend’s parents home, she comes to terms with her loss.

With a script by director Ryutaro Nakagawa and Ryuhei Yoshino, “Summer Blooms” is an understated story about love and loss. The relaxed pace allows the viewer to simply be with the characters without forced melodrama. Stunning cinematography by Rei Hirano featuring long shots from a train windows of pastoral landscapes, or quiet moments with the actors sitting in thought, make up much of the film. One excellent scene features a long take with Hatsumi walking while listening to music after her date with Totaru. The film allows us to follow alongside her, picking up on the lightness of her step, and the odd mix of feelings bubbling up inside. This style of direction, with long lingering shots, or scenes that run on, is bold, relying on audience patience and investment in the characters, and only possible with the incredible performances of the cast. Aki Asakura gives a subtle yet moving portrayal of a woman dealing stoically with loss and loneliness. Yuriko Kawasaki’s Kaede offers the perfect foil as a lively, carefree young woman, whose own relationship troubles spur Hatsumi to reassess her situation. Takahiro Miura is also good as an atypical love interest, charmingly unsure of himself around this beautiful woman. Atypical as the film is less about their relationship than the unresolved relationship Hatsumi has with her late boyfriend, Kentaro. The music, by Hisaki Kato, is used sparingly and never forcefully, gently enhancing certain moments. It is more notable by its absence in particular moments, leaving the audience without that musical crutch, left alone with the characters to feel their uncertainty along with them. Throughout the film Hatsumi’s love of radio is shown, an almost permanent companion in her solitude, and the score is used in a similar way, a comfort that makes the silences the more poignant.

“Summer Blooms” is a simple story, a woman dealing with the loss of a partner some years prior, that allows its themes and ideas to evolve naturally. One of the most striking of these themes is the relationship of the main character with time, and by extension memory and mortality. Hatsumi goes to see “Casablanca”, where she is first reunited with Kaede, and later she hears Kaede singing “As Time Goes By” at a jazz club. Clocks also feature heavily in particular scenes, giving an insight into Hatsumi’s mindset. She has been essentially trapped in time since Kentaro’s death, unable to move on from that moment, while the world goes on around her. Her career and love-life both appear to have stalled three years prior. This is truly at the heart of the story: Hatsumi’s desire to unburden herself of past feelings of regret and move beyond Kentaro’s death. A poignant romance with a fantastic central performance from Asakura, “Summer Blooms” offers an intriguing look at what becomes of people after relationships, their shared memories now torn asunder.

Mio on the Shore (2019) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in a picturesque rural village in Nagano with her grandmother who runs a bathhouse. When her grandmother becomes sick, Mio moves to Tokyo to live with Kyosuke (Ken Mitsuishi), an old friend of her mothers. After failing to find work, Mio begins to help out at Kyosuke’s bathhouse. She makes friends with a local film-maker and a man who runs an Ethiopian restaurant.

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, from a script by Nakagawa, Hikaru Kimura and Keitaro Sakon, “Mio on the Shore” is a contemplative slice-of-life drama, its story unfolding slowly with plenty of time for ruminating on the characters state of mind. There is some stunning scenery to look at of the rural waterside town where Mio lives, beautifully captured by cinematographer Rei Hirano. The long lingering shots, accompanied only by ambient noise, create a meditative atmosphere, allowing us to sit quietly with Mio and experience her own sense of anomie or aimlessness. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are these wordless scenes of visual poetry, looking out over an expanse of water, or sitting in a dark bathhouse. It is very much a film that forgoes plot for a fragmentary approach, highlighting several incidents and conversations that build up a portrait of everyday life. The charming score by Hisaki Kato provides the perfect accompaniment. Mio is a likeable protagonist, shy and enigmatic, her inner world often closed to us, but nevertheless intriguing. Mitsushi’s Kyosuke also seems to be harbouring a secret, a conflicted character dealing with his own demons. There are allusions to their pasts, but very little is made explicit.

Towards the end of the film we see a montage of businesses closing down, perhaps the closest the film comes to making a statement on its theme. “Mio on the Shore” is a film about things drawing to an end and what is left behind when they are gone. Whether businesses, relationships, or human life, all of these things are finite. The English title “Mio on the Shore” perhaps a reference to this borderline between being and not being, while the Japanese title “Holding Light in your Hand”, referencing a poem that is recited in the film, speaks to the ephemeral, ineffable, ethereal, spiritual world, the transience of all things and how humans live in a society where nothing lasts forever. While it may seem like a depressing notion, the film offers a hope in the sense that there is light in the world, even if we are not able to hold on to it for long. We cannot hold on to the past, but we can enjoy life while it is here. A poetic ode to the fleeting nature of existence. A beautifully shot film that reminds us that while everything in life is temporary, there is beauty in its transience.