Chigasaki Story opens with shots of a very laid-back and summery Chigasaki, ragtime music, and opening credits laid over a bright blue background. Like the seaside town where it’s set, the film sets itself up as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but the outside world keeps creeping in, try as the characters might to keep it at bay.
It’s tempting to describe the film in terms of everything it doesn’t do. It has a bit of a rom-com flavor, but there are no cloying pop songs playing over the credits or rain-soaked declarations of love. There’s a wedding, but it’s a low-key one between two characters we knew were engaged from the very beginning. Things don’t end neatly. There are a few moments of quasi-melodrama, but for the most part very little shout-acting or lengthy speeches. Instead, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and the characters’ real feelings often remain unspoken.
It’s also refreshing that everyone is flawed, even the characters who initially seem saintly. Some people are awkward or overly aggressive. Friends depend on each other but also drive each other crazy. Sometimes people say too much, and sometimes you wish they’d say more.
The simple plot involves two coworker friends, bubbly Karin (Ena Koshino) and the more reserved Maki (Kiki Sugino, who also produced the film) who travel to the seaside town of Chigasaki for a four-day holiday to celebrate the wedding of their former coworker, Risa (Natsuko Hori). Risa and her family run a 115-year-old inn where Yasujiro Ozu wrote several of his more famous scripts, and there are occasional nods to the director in the film’s depictions of the tensions beneath the facade of domestic life and the frames-within-frames in many of the shots. (The English title is also a clear reference to Tokyo Story.)
Also staying at the inn are a group of university students whose professor (Satoshi Nikaido) seems to have a bit of a past with Maki. There’s also Tomoharu (Haya Nakazaki), the shy and studious boy who’s immediately the target of Karin’s flirtations, and Ayako (Juri Fukushima), who has a crush on Tomoharu.
The characters are like magnets pushing and pulling against one another—everyone desires or is desired by someone else, but the affections aren’t usually returned evenly. Writer-director Takuya Misawa compared it to a deck of cards—every card has a pair, but you don’t always find them. Indeed, playing cards are a frequent sight in the film—a single card laying on the floor, a group of people playing “go fish,” one character playing solitaire on a large table. There’s also an amusing scene where the characters take turns playing ping-pong, and their feelings come through in the way they hit the ball.
For the most part, the dialogue feels natural. Misawa admitted that he often eavesdrops on people’s conversations in diners and edits them later for inclusion in his films. There’s also wonderful use of sound—occasional bits of ragtime music in the background, the familiar noise of people clomping around in flip-flops or geta near the beach, and the strangely haunting music of the “five o’clock bell” that signals the end of the day, which becomes both a marker for the passage of time and a reminder that all of this is fleeting (the film’s Japanese title translates to “3 days, 4 nights, 5 o’clock bell”).
Amazingly, Takuya Misawa hasn’t graduated from film school yet—he’s a fourth-year student at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, and Chigasaki Story is his debut feature. I kept waiting for it to stumble big—to push its characters into unrealistic situations, to give them words to say that felt inauthentic, or to reach an over-the-top emotional climax. But it did none of those things, and I found myself smiling with relief at the final image. I realized at that moment that I’d been really, really rooting for it. It shouldn’t be such an accomplishment for a simple movie to avoid cliches, but this one does, and it’s very satisfying.
Chigasaki Story opens in Japan on September 19. Screenings at K’s Cinema in Shinjuku have English subtitles.