It's adorable. It might be the cutest film I've ever seen and I'd have to wrack my brains if I wanted to try to think of anything that might top it.
It's also the first film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, if you don't count his assistant and/or second unit work under Keisuke Kinoshita. It's short, of course, but it's also not what you'd expect given Kobayashi's reputation. This is the director of Kwaidan
(Oscar-nominated horror anthology) and The Human Condition (a nine-hour trilogy about a pacifist and socialist in Japan during World War Two). This film though is sweet, charming and likely to make you wish you'd grown up in 1950s Japan. (Apparently Kinoshita helped and supervised Kobayashi in the making of it, which might partly explain why its tone is more like the older director's work.)
It's about a family of four: Akira Ishihama (supposedly aged 18, in his movie debut), his younger brother and his parents. The plot is simple. It's based on a novel, but the original can hardly be a doorstopper. Ishihama likes a girl (Yoko Kosono, although in her movie debut). His parents love him and each other, although he's capable of fighting with his younger brother over the latter's no-good friend. Anyway, it's Ishihama's birthday soon and he'll be having a party, so it's suggested that he invite Kosono.
...and that's nearly it. That kind of stuff is mostly all that happens. There's chunkier plotting near the end with boys getting into trouble with the police, but even that's as harmless as everything else here and mostly another way of demonstrating how everyone cares about everyone else. If they'd messed this up, the film would have been sappy beyond belief. This much sugar had the potential to kill diabetics on the spot. However no one messes up. On the contrary, it's a triumph. Everything works and the film's a delight, in one of those magical happy accidents that can happen in movie-making.
Ishihama is immense. It's amazing to think that he's a teenager making his debut, because he'd have walked away with the movie if everyone else weren't so good too. It's an effervescent performance, full of life and spontaneity. It'll take you about three seconds to fall in love with him and he keeps finding charming little non-verbal moments. The film opens with him saying goodbye to Kosono and the two of them just can't stop saying "goodbye" as the latter disappears into the distance. Ishihama then goes home, singing.
Later, he claims to find his father intimidating. Ishihama makes this believable, but it's another way in which he's cute because he has ideal parents and his children's freedom is his father's guiding principle. His mother (Kuniko Miyake) even tells off her husband about it. "Non-interference policy... your head is wrapped in ideals!"
It's just such a happy film. It gives me a feeling not dissimilar to that I get from H.E. Bates's The Darling Buds of May novels. You love everyone. I don't think I've ever seen Miyake seem so beautiful, yet on the other hand the film also manages to delight you with the fact that the girls at Ishihama's party are absolute horses. They've been beaten with the ugly stick... but charmingly this doesn't matter at all and no one seems to have noticed. Everyone's just having innocent fun together. (In fairness, the boys aren't oil paintings either.) The young people even dance, in a manner that suggests English country dancing must be an old Japanese tradition. They're only a few bells and sticks away from being Morris dancers. I loved all this.
In fairness Ishihama's dad is capable of passing mild comment on one particularly troll-like girl, when he and Miyake are peeping in to try and spy the famous Kosono. However when pointed in the right direction, he calls Kosono beautiful. I don't think so. (She seems a nice girl, but her face is circular.)
There's one point where it gets too much. When the boys fight and make up, their facial expressions when laughing at each other cross the "Trying Too Hard" line. Otherwise, though, it all stays on the right side.
It's probably more about the parents than the children. Ishihama and his contemporaries are simply living their lives, but the older generation will be having discussions about their responsibilities as parents. Some of the disagreements are fundamental, especially when Chishu Ryu shows up for that police incident in the final act. It's not obvious how some of these questions should be handled, but the film still raises them and does its best to provide humane, thoughtful answers. Everyone has their own style, but differences are acknowledged and people prove willing to accommodate opposing points of view.
I appreciated the kabuki, by the way. Ishihama and Kosono go on a date to watch kabuki. I've never seen it live myself and it looks freaky... I'd known about the extreme make-up, but the metre-long Rapunzel wig was a surprise.
It ends in a manner that you might choose to see as mildly unsettling. It's assumed that boys will fight (...okay) and the film's last scene involves three boys fighting together as their fathers cheer them on. It's as happy as everything else we'd seen until that point, but I still found it mildly disquieting. However the way Kobayashi is cutting together the fathers at the end makes me wonder if he wasn't agreeing with me. (Kobayashi saw himself as a pacifist and although unable to stop himself being drafted into World War Two, had then resisted by rejecting all attempt at promoting him above private. He'd also spent time as a prisoner of war.)
In short, delightful. It helps that it's only 45 minutes long, of course. You'd struggle to make it through three hours like this. Definitely recommended.