There’s a line in a song from the late Jeff Buckley that goes “Too young to hold on, and too old to just break free and run”. For anybody who feels trapped or obligated by the circumstances of their life, their job or their family, these words resonate deep inside us. They could also be readily applied to Takahiro Miki’s debut film Solanin, where music is represented as a powerful inspirational force for change. Based on the popular manga series by Inio Asano, first published in Shogakukan’s Weekly Young Sunday in 2005 and 2006, the film adaptation was released earlier this year in Japanese cinemas. Thanks to the 14th Japanese Film Festival in Australia (JFF14), Australian audiences now get a chance to enjoy this theatrically as well.
Meiko (Aoi Miyazaki, The Summit: A Chronicle of the Stones to Serenity) and Taneda (Kengo Kora, Box!) have been together since university. It has been several years since they graduated, and they both find themselves at a loose end. Meiko is stuck in a dead-end office job, and Taneda knows that his true passion is playing music with his friends (although they are reluctant to actually plan in front of an audience). When Meiko quits her job in the hopes of “finding herself”, Taneda worries about what will happen to them financially and his dreams of making a living from his music. The pair fall headlong into the future, not knowing what it will bring.
Not since Toy Story 3 earlier this year have I found myself openly weeping so frequently during a film. Perhaps this is because that all people of a certain post-university age will have an instant connection with Solanin. Completely capturing the vibe of a generation lost in a sea of choice, but simultaneously having no particular goal to strive for, Solanin taps into the angst and uncertain future that all young adults around the world share. The theme resonates in particular with this particular generation of Japanese youth, who are largely free of the same expectations that their parent’s generation endured (and is explored from two different perspectives in JFF14 stable-mate Hanamizuki). Following the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s, it wouldn’t make sense for many to so carelessly give up ‘sensible’ working careers in favour of pursuing ‘frivolous’ dreams. Yet this is something that is common to many around the world now, who find themselves in a post-global financial crisis state wondering if the pursuit of money is worth the hassle.
Don’t mistake this for a cookie-cutter coming-of-age drama, however, as there is genuine weight and emotion to be found here. While not driven by a overly dramatic narrative or indie rock attitude as some of the marketing might suggest, much of the exertion of the film (and of the characters) is used in managing their day-to-day existence. Solanin is content to observe these characters as they are. Wonderful characters they are too, with the lead performance by Aoi Miyazaki one of the standouts of the year. At veteran in the industry at the tender age of 24, she earned a Best Actress Award at the Cinemanila International Film Festival for her lead performance in Harmful Insect. Her performance here is filled with a quiet strength: we first meet her at the depth of depression and (without spoilers) we leave her at a much more accepting place, with the young actress showing incredible range and nuance. Kengo Kora, who we are soon to see in the Haruki Murakami adaptation Norwegian Wood, also convinces and endears as the often slack but always loevable Taneda. During the moments he is not on screen, his absence is keenly felt, particularly through the powerful supporting roles of band-mates Kenta Kiritani (Beck) and real-life bassist Yoichi Kondo.
Solanin is easily one of the must-see entries at this year’s Japanese Film Festival. Emotionally buoyed by a strong soundtrack and a cast of real characters who just get by on getting by, it will be a cynical person indeed who leaves the cinema without at least taking a second look at their life and wondering where it is all going next.
Solanin is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. If there is any justice, this will be picked up for distribution as well.