Production Company: FAT
Release: 15 March 1997
Length: 73 min.
Format: 35 mm, 1:1.33
Director: Nakashima Tetsuya
Producer: Takarada Haruo
Screenplay: Nakashima Tetsuya
Takashi: Hidaka Yoshitomo
Atsuo: Kishibe Ittoku
Junko’s mother: Nakamura Kumi
Junko’s sister: Ishikawa Maki
Junko: Nagi Noriko
Kimura, the gym teacher: Ito Masayuki
Tomoko: Taguchi Hiroko
Man in TV drama: Nezu Jinpachi
His wife: Ishida Eri
Lover 1: Yo Kimiko
Lover 2: Fujii Kaori
Smiling at Our Own Imperfections
Did your mother ever give you the old line: “If you can’t make your bed, you’ll never make anything of yourself”? It seemed like a lot of pressure over just arranging a few sheets.
Takashi (Hidaka Yoshitomo), the fourth-grade hero of Summer Tale, has a similar problem. In gym class, he can’t do a back pullover over the horizontal bar. No big deal, but his teacher insists that this is a test of life. If he, with the other pullover failures, can’t succeed in this task by the next week, they’re sure to grow up to be lazy bums who will never succeed in life.
Takashi would prefer to brush this off, but he’s stuck in the most cunning of Japanese torture machines–the group. If all five, under the glaring eyes of the class, can’t do it, then all of them fail. As he and his cohorts struggle to master this mysterious trick, soon even Takeshi begins to worry if he will truly be a flop in life.
Social pressure and individual failure hover over the world of Summer Tale. The potential horror behind this situation is all too familiar to those living in an age of cram schools and exam hell. But in a both comically absurd and ironically bittersweet critique of this environment, director Nakashima Tetsuya asks us to smile at our own imperfections.
Not only Takashi but many of the adults around him are burdened with anxieties. For the grown ups, however, they revolve around their own memories of the kind of failures Takashi seems now destined to commit himself. His father Atsuo (Ittoku Kishibe), in a hilarious scene, can’t forget that his only success as a schoolboy–a national prize for a brightly colored picture–was wholly due to his little sister mistakenly scribbling over his drawing with crayons. His mother (Nagi Noriko) still feels guilty that, under the influence of comic book-fan friends, she had really begun to believe that her sickly mother was the ghoulish “snake woman” straight out of something horror cartoonist Umezu Kazuo drew.
Both flashback episodes reveal that the parents share much in common with their worrisome son. In fact, in Summer Tale, precocious kids and ineffectual grown ups are essentially equal. Here adults are just large children whose youthful anxieties have lived on in the form of bittersweet memories.
Nakashima performs this leveling off by deftly deflating any adult pretensions of superiority. Behind the grown-up bluster about success and maturity, he shows adults who are just wounded kids. With a biting and often capricious sense of irony, he gives lie to all the cliches teachers and parents tend to spout.
He even pulls the rug out from under the kid movie cliches about success. Typically, when Takashi finally performs the dreaded back pullover, it is the result of a complete fluke.
Summer Tale is a different movie about kids. Takashi has a girl he likes, but this is not about him eventually scoring. Nor is this a coming-of-age comedy because no one here comes of age.
It is precisely because the characters in Nakashima’s world are neither heroic nor special that the film envelops us with a soothing gentleness, reassuring us that none of us can be perfect–that we can live with our own failures.
Summer Tale comes off feeling like a small film, meant to be watched in a small theater with a few friends. Perhaps this is due to Nakashima’s background as the award-winner creator of the smallest of films: television commercials. Here he successfully takes the style of much of the best of Japanese CMs–understated, episodic, yet still narratively precise–and weaves a very enjoyable 73-minute story.
Nakashima brandishes his skills to the fullest with his editing gags. The film has its funniest moments when Takashi suddenly imagines himself as a failed adult–at war or in a bad soap opera–with Hidaka still playing the adult Takashi. In world burdened with the pressures to succeed and the memories of failure, maybe we should all take a vacation and enjoy a bit of Summer Tale.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 13 March 1997, p. 9.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow