Setting: Tokyo, in 1958.
Synopsis: The year is 1958. The government had declared in 1955 that the “postwar” period is over and Japan is starting a period of tremendous growth. Tokyo Tower is being built as a symbol of a recovered Japan, and not far from it, in the working-class area called shitamachi, people are trying their best to improve their lives. Hoshino Mutsuko, just graduated from junior high school, arrives in Tokyo with a group of young people from a poor region of northern Japan who have applied for jobs in the booming capital. Mutsuko imagines that Suzuki Auto, which is where she is to work, must be some big car manufacturer, and is quite surprised when the company president himself, Suzuki Norifumi, comes to the station to greet her. Her friends tell her she might end up being the president’s secretary, but Mutsuko soon finds out that she is becoming the only employee of a small car repair shop in shitamachi. Norifumi’s wife, Tomoe, is gentle and caring, and their son, Ippei, a kind and energetic boy, but Mutsuko begins to cry from disappointment. When the short-tempered Norifumi hears of this, he flies into a rage, accusing of her of lying on her application by writing car repairs as a skill. It turns out, however, that he not only lied himself in the job posting—saying Suzuki Auto was a car maker—but also misread her application (her skill was bicycle repair, which is spelled a lot like car repair in Japanese). Norifumi is forced to apologize.
This confrontation takes place inside the candy store of Chagawa Ryunosuke, which is across the street from Suzuki Auto. Ryunosuke was once a finalist for one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, but now he just writes adventure stories for kids in third-rate magazines. He lazes around the store he inherited from his aunt, waiting for the mail, which mostly only brings rejections from publishers. He tries to drown his sorrows at a new bar run by Ishizaka Hiromi, an attractive woman who has quickly earned a few admirers. Drunk, somewhat smitten himself, and boasting of his expertise with children, Ryunosuke ends up taking in Junnosuke, the son of a dancer who once worked with Hiromi but who has disappeared. When he realizes what he has gotten himself into, Ryunosuke tries to get rid of the boy, but he changes his mind when he finds out that Junnosuke is probably the greatest fan of his adventure stories in the world.
Summer arrives and so does the television the Suzuki family has been waiting for. With TVs still a rare commodity, the entire neighborhood shows up at Suzuki Auto to watch the prowrestler Rikidozan use his famous karate chop against evil foreign opponents. But when the screen goes blank, Ryunosuke, brandishing his supposedly superior college education, tries to fix it and only makes it worse, ruining the night and the TV.
Junnosuke, usually looking cheerless and downtrodden, finally makes some friends in Ippei and his classmates who discover that he has been writing adventure stories himself—and quite good ones at that. Ryunosuke, suffering from writer’s block, also discovers the stories and surreptitiously submits one as his own story. Ippei and the others soon discover the plagiarism, but Junnosuke, thrilled to have his story cleaned up and published, only has feelings of thanks for Ryunosuke.
One day in the fall, Junnosuke overhears Ryunosuke and Hiromi talking about where his mother might be. Telling Ippei about this, the two decide to make the trek across town to visit his mother. Using all their money—and counting on Junnosuke’s mother for return fare—they reach the store she supposedly works at, but the man there bluntly sends them away, refusing to acknowledge she was ever employed there. As the two worry about how to go back home, the Suzukis, Ryunosuke, and Hiromi frantically search for the two boys. When they finally make it back home, thanks to some money Tomoe sewed into Ippei’s sweater for emergencies, Ryunosuke slaps Junnosuke, telling him how worried he was. Hiromi becomes impressed at how Ryunosuke, who always reminds Junnosuke that they are not related, is starting to act like a real father.
Sensing her interest, Ryunosuke frantically tries to gather money to buy a present for Junnosuke and an engagement ring for Hiromi for Christmas. He gets a fountain pen for Junnosuke, who is most impressed—in part because it was delivered by Santa himself (played by the local Dr. Takuma, who lost his family during the war). Ryunosuke, however, only manages enough cash to purchase a ring case for Hiromi. But she is still pleased and insists he place the not-yet-there ring on her finger. This was her last time with Ryunosuke, because burdened by debts, she leaves the neighborhood early the next morning without telling anyone, and begins working at a dancehall.
For the New Year holidays, the Suzukis give Mutsuko train tickets as a present so that she can go home to visit her family. She refuses, however, because she thinks her parents, burdened by half a dozen children, were glad to get rid of her. Tomoe, however, shows Mutsuko the letters her mother had secretly written expressing love and concern for her daughter. Her parents’ supposed pleasure at having one less mouth to feed was just an act to encourage Mutsuko to strike out on her own.
Just around that time, Junnosuke’s real father shows up, and he turns out to be a rich businessman who had an affair with the boy’s mother. Thinking that this man can give Junnosuke a better life, Ryunosuke agrees to hand over Junnosuke, but the father’s attitude is haughty. He even throws away the pen Ryunosuke got for Junnosuke, calling it third class. After they drive away, Ryunosuke runs after them, calling out the boy’s name, but falls onto the pavement. He looks up and finds Junnosuke standing in front of him. He pushes him away, again emphasizing that they are not related. But Junnosuke refuses to leave.
All the residents of the neighborhood look towards the setting sun, going down over the now completed Tokyo Tower.
Based on a comic by Saigan Ryohei that began publication in 1974, Always rode the wave of a nostalgia boom for 1950s Japan and became a box-office hit. A sequel was made two years later. Its vision of the era is largely rose colored and matches other conventional representations of lower-class shitamachi (downtown) neighborhoods, featuring good-natured but slightly oddball characters who maintain a strong sense of community presumably lost in modern urban Japan. Always’ historical interpretation is thus nostalgic, but it is not attempting to return to the good old days. It was produced by Robot, a company often involved in special-effects works and which put considerable effort into using computer graphics to reproduce realistic images of 1950s Tokyo. It was also directed by Yamazaki Takashi, whose previous films have been sci-fi fantasies. The point of Always is less to realistically depict 1950s Japan, and more to provide a fantasy, on the same level of Junnosuke’s futuristic worlds, that the audience can immerse itself in. That the film does.
Color / Vista / 2005 / 132 min / NTV, Robot, Shogakukan, Vap, Toho, Dentsu, YTV, Yomiuri Shinbun, Shirogumi, Imagica
Director : Yamazaki Takashi
Script : Yamazaki Takashi, Kosawa Ryota
Based on the comic by: Saigan Ryohei
Cinematography : Shibazaki Kozo
Art Direction : Kamijo Anri
Music : Sato Naoki
Executive Producers: Abe Shuji
Producers : Ando Chikahiro
Chagawa Ryunosuke : Yoshioka Hidetaka
Suzuki Norifumi : Tsutsumi Shin’ichi
Ishizaki Hiromi : Koyuki
Hoshino Mutsuko : Horikita Maki
Takuma Shiro : Miura Tomokazu
Ota Kin : Motai Masako
Suzuki Tomoe, Norifumi’s wife: Yakushimaru Hiroko
Suzuki Ippei, her son : Koshimizu Kazuki
Furuyuki Junnosuke : Suga Kenta