Rating for I: 7/10
Rating for II: 6/10
Director: Yamazaki Takashi
Set in post-WWII 1960s, based on a manga, Always interweaves the narratives of multiple characters living in a run-down neighbourhood. Film I’s narratives are loose and not too distinctive; but this is one of those rare films where narrative is a vehicle to portray context and milieu rather than vice versa. And context is key here.
The film’s success is attributable to its theme of nostalgia and the authentic history it evokes. It spares no effort in recreating a slice of 1950s-postwar-Japanese-life, capturing historical detail down to the school uniforms, the games that children play, and the excitement at getting a fridge (the other two symbols of modernity being the TV and the washing machine).
Characters are distinctive and stereotypically Japanese. A father is gruff and good-hearted, a mother is kind and homely, a writer is romantic and persistent, kids are endearing and mischievous. While not terribly complex, Always‘ characters are far from flat. They each have their own flaws and distinctive personalities that help them gain a foothold in viewers’ hearts.
These characters gain stronger motivations and depth in Always II. Concurrently, film II’s narratives become stronger and tighter, though it still retains its intermeshing of characters’ lives. But again, the narratives are nothing spectacular. Again, it is the milieu that shines.
Always II evokes the same postwar nostalgia. But along with its characters, this nostalgia also develops into a sense of moving forward for the entire time period, captured in subtle details such as a bulldozer in the background and the ice man in Always I now being an ice-cream man in the prequel.
That being said, Always II is a tad less masterful than its predecessor in transporting its viewers back into a recreated slice of history. It feels just a bit more clumsy with its characters and narrative cluttering up its milieu.
Throughout both films, hope is pervasive. While they do not shy away from the depths of everyday life, these issues are always treated with finesse and a light touch. In so doing, the history they recreate is not simply a reminiscent snapshot of what life used to be; it is a “psychological sanctuary” (Prof’s term) for viewers that remember the struggles and hardships of the postwar years too vividly. And perhaps this is where these films are truly masterful: it does not simply recreate history; it subtly suggests a way to look at it, and in so doing, alters a viewers’ memory of it.