Following specialist distributor Third Windows’ past championing of Shûichi Okita’s The Woodsman and the Rain (2011), the director’s next equally impressive film The Story of Yonosuke (2013) receives a welcome DVD release this week which will hopefully introduce the filmmaker to a broader audience in the UK. Okita seems to be carving a very specific niche in Japanese cinema, with films focused on downtrodden, marginalised men with identity issues struggling to find their place in contemporary society. Such a premise is nothing new, and to draw attention to such male ineptitude for comedy value is now a staple of male centred Hollywood vehicles for the likes of Seth Rogen.
Whilst boasting more than its fair share of amusing anecdotal moments focusing on its main character’s numerous flaws and shortcomings, The Story of Yonosuke marks both itself and its director Okita apart by its refusal to conform to being a simplistic crowdpleaser. Instead, the journey of the titular Yonosuke (played with affable charm by actor Kengo Kôra) turns from likable comedy into an elegantly made drama, which posits difficult questions and perspectives about the meaning of life and friendship in contemporary Japanese society. This sophistication in approach is evident in the brave decision made by Okita to reveal a major plot point relatively early on in proceedings, rather than as a means of narrative conclusion as would a more conventional filmmaker.
This decision initially seems jarring, awkward even, but as the film progresses we are rewarded with a reflective and poignant exploration of cause and effect that has a much more profound impact; a genuine sense of connection and empathy for the characters and their situation. On the evidence of both The Woodsman and Yonosuke, Okita is adept at making the conventional seem unconventional. A seemingly straightforward ‘fish out of water’ narrative is transformed into a sophisticated character study thanks to Okita’s subtle and assured direction. This indirect approach does have its drawbacks; at nearly two and a half hours long the film meandering pace does drag proceedings down at times, however the over-riding feel good tone and refined narrative structure will keep any patient viewer more than satisfied.