While Shuichi Okita might not be such a well-known Japanese director internationally, he has nevertheless delighted national and international audiences with some of his narratives, like The Woodsman and the Rain (2012), A Story of Yonosuke (2013) and Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (2019). With his latest film, One summer Story (2020), Shuichi Okita presents his first live-action adaptation, adapting Retto Tajima’s Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai to the silver screen.
One day, Minami Sakuta (Moka Kamishiraishi), a 2nd grade high school student and member of the swimming club, runs, after seeing someone on the roof painting something familiar, to the rooftop of her high school. On the roof, she meets Shohei Moji (Kanata Hosoda) who is artistically painting the main character from her favourite anime-series Maho Sakan Otome Buffalo-Koteko. They quickly start to bond over their shared love for the series.
It does not take that long before Shohei invites Minami to his house. To her surprise, she finds a bunch of written talismans exactly like the one she has in her wallet. Shusei explains that his father and grandfather, both calligraphers, work for a new religious sect, called The Chest of Light, and made these talismans for them. Minami thinks this talisman was send to her by her biological father, a man whom she has no memories of. Minami eventually asks Shohei’s brother (Yudai Chiba) for help and he quickly discovers that her biological father (Etsushi Toyokawa) is the leader of the religious sect. Armed with this knowledge, she decides to go out on a trip to meet him.
One Summer Story is a narrative that explores two different relations: the relation of the Minami and her biological father and the relation between Minami and Shohei. Even though both relations are important for the development of the narrative, the emphasis lies on the first relation: the possibility of a renewed relation between her and her biological father.
The opening animation scene in which Count Cement tries (but fails) to evade meeting his children Mortar and Concrete, foreshadows, in fact, the structure of the narrative. The scene of Maho Sakan Otome Buffalo-Koteko, first and foremost, foreshadows the trajectory of Minami Sakuta because her desire to meet her father is, one could say, enflamed by this animation. Secondly, the animation evokes the impossible position of the father. Count Cement does not want to meet his children, because he considers himself a failure and unworthy to be a father. He fails to see that those who become father will structurally fail to realize this position and that children love their father for the failure he eventually is. The decision of Minami to meet her biological father is, as vaguely alluded in the narrative, underpinned by an implicit believe that her father, just like Count Cement, could not accept the failure he as father was and that her unconditional acceptance of him as failure will allow him to re-realize a father position for her.
Even though she wants to meet him, she is at a loss about how to call him – she wonders if he she can call him father. The reason why she is unsure about how to call him is because, he, beyond his biological position as father, has had no symbolic or imaginary position as father in her life. Still, her desire to meet him presupposes a desire to make him into a real father in the symbolic, to give him, through her word, the position of father.
The second relation concerns the relation between Minami and Shohei. While they quickly bond over their love for this anime, there is – as the spectator will surely notice – a certain uneasiness that remains lingering between them. This uneasiness, sensible in many of Minami and Shohei’s interactions, is caused by the blossoming of a mutual romantic interest. Their interactions are, in other words, marked by a subtle awkwardness, because the romantic interest they have make them truly consider the other as the other sex – e.g. For Minami Shohei truly appears as a ‘man’ and for Shohei Minami truly appears as a ‘woman’.
While One Summer Story has a lot of potential at the level of its themes (i.e. the theme of first love and the theme of reconnecting and reestablishing a subject into a father position), the narrative is not able to capitalize on or exploit this potential. All the ingredients might be present to turn Minami’s trajectory a moving and touching experience, but the too superficial approach of the two central themes robs the emotional moments of their ability to touch the spectator. What the narrative misses is an exploration of the conflict that marks Minami towards her biological father as well as an exploration of the very reason why her biological father evacuated himself from the position of the father.
The underlying theme, the theme of symbolic nomination – i.e. Minami’s desire to raise her biological father to a father in the symbolic, is not an uncommon theme within Japanese cinema. This theme, in fact, underpins many films made by the Japanese master of familial drama: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Even though Okita’s One Summer Story is not a bad film by any means – it is, in truth, a pleasant film, Okita’s take on the theme pales in comparison with the films made by Kore-eda who has made this theme one of his main obsessions.
The composition of One Summer Story stands out due to its dynamism. Scenes are, generally, composed with a lot of dynamism. Not only does Okita frames scenes with a lot of dynamic moments – fluidly following as well as measured spatially moving moments, but he also decorates, in some cases, his composition with more creative techniques like POV shots and shaky shots. Even so, Okita does compose some scenes primarily with static shots. But even in these more static compositions, he finds the opportunity to insert – probably merely to provide some cinematographical variety – some very subtle spatial moving moments or some following moving moments.
One Summer Story is a pleasant narrative − full of lighthearted, romantic, and familial moments – but it could have been a better narrative if it had explored the conflictual dimension of symbolically nominating a subject as father. By not giving this conflictual dimension its necessary attention, Okita is not able to make the final moments, moments full of emotion, truly moving.