For years I’ve been telling myself the same old story
That I was happy to live off my so-called former glories
But you’ve given me a reason
To take another chance
Now I need you
Despite the fact that you’ve killed all my plans
And though I know
I’ve already blown more chances
Than anyone should ever get
All I’m asking you
Is don’t write me off just yet.
“Don’t Write Me Off”
Music and Lyrics
For the better of my life, I have grown up with three sisters and experienced everything mainstream possible. My first sister liked to listen to Jay Chou and Rain songs, my second sister for some reason rented Big Momma’s House 2 for me to watch even though I had never watched the first film, and my third sister enjoyed reading Richard Branson autobiographies like Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way.
I grew up watching art films like Andrei Rublev and Dogville. We can’t possibly be any more different.
However, there is one particular field that my three sisters and I can meet eye to eye. Romance films. I grew up watching these films as my sisters went on dates with boyfriends and future husbands, both successful and unsuccessful. Most romance films are bad, but they have a simple, genuine plot thread that anyone can follow and understand: “I need you badly.”
To love someone in a romance film means you will do anything to get the love of your dreams. It is as simple as that. Yet, for all the genericness in plot, people keep going back to romance films for a reason. One of the first films that isn’t a kid’s film I remember enjoying is Music and Lyrics, a hopelessly cheesy romance comedy featuring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore trying to write music. The climax is that they have misunderstandings, but their love transcends them and they get back together. It is somehow a satisfying film, more so than classics like Toy Story 2 which I watched forever. It has no twists and turns, but I feel moved when the two leads finally kissed.
Romance might as well be one of my favorite genres that nobody knows I like deep inside.
There are going to be debates whether Yamada Naoko’s adaptation of 聲の形 is a romance film. Indeed, the most romantic aspect of the film is the two leads, Ishida Shouya and Nishimiya Shouko, never confessed to each other. Not at least in the proper way. Some people might get disappointed that the romantic tension is never resolved. The ending of the film resolves far more differently from any kind of film, let alone a romance: the characters step into a new future with the romance becoming a subplot in the background. It’s easy to see why there are already conversations comparing 君の名は (Your Name) to it and why one or another is superior. The latter is romance and the former isn’t. Or is it the other way around? Others might try to distance Yamada’s film away from the genre because romance is way too low and popular of a culture to take anything from it seriously.
These ideas are something I disagree with.
For I hold a peculiar philosophy to romance films that is almost confirmed by Yamada in the opening montage of the film. When “My Generation” by The Who played, it’s like she agrees with me that romance films are something more than just low and popular media.
Romance films, in my view, ask themselves what it means to love. Love is a complicated subject that nobody seems to understand, but we know what love is when we see it. Casablanca is a 1942 film that might as well be the counter-narrative to the Music and Lyrics, a 2007 film. To love is to learn when to let go and sacrifice romance for the sake of something bigger.
Released in the middle of World War 2, Casablanca was going to be one of those typical romance films with only one big draw: it had some of the best damn-looking actors and actresses. Otherwise, it was seen as another forgettable film. But to everyone’s surprise, it became a classic thanks to its themes of sacrifice and people now study it relentlessly why such a hastily made film could be a timeless work of art that can pull the heartstrings of so many people.
Umberto Eco believes he has the answer. In “Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage”, he notes that the film is nothing more but a “hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly”. At most, it is a “very modest aesthetic achievement” that has become a “cult movie” loved by many. He explains what the requirements of this popularity are:
The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fans’ private, sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.
Putting the film alongside the likes of Rocky Horror Picture Show, he argues that these quotes and scenes don’t have to match up to the film. The fact they are quotable is good enough. “Play it again, Sam” isn’t what is said in the film, but it sure sounds nicer than “Play it, Sam”.
Later, Eco drives the point harder by saying that the moments we do choose to remember is driven by how cliched it is. “Every story,” writes Eco, “involves one or more archetypes. To make a good story a single archetype is usually enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses all.” It is as if Eco has a vendetta against the opening twenty minutes of the film, which he calls “a sort of review of the principal archetypes” before lambasting the lack of “synthetic concern” afterwards. He notes all the themes, motifs, and symbolism that he has seen in other places (“First,” he lists the traits of the opening scene, “African music, then the Marsaeille. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.”) and examines the “symphonic elaboration” of these cult movie tropes. He ends up shrugging his shoulders with dismay that this is the same old story over and over again.
This “reunion of archetypes” thus reinforces this patched narrative feeling in his view. Nothing is done differently, they are done all the same. “Casablanca became a cult movie,” he therefore concludes, “because it was not one movie. It is ‘movies’.”
I fully agree with Eco’s conclusions, but I find that beneath all these cliches and structures there is something deeper than he ever grasped. Romance films are memes, the same old story traveling through the passage of time unchanged and never aging. They can also be culturally relevant and serve as a time capsule for the voices who cannot speak.
In the midst of patriotism against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Casablanca becomes a weaponized expression of the generation during the 1940s. For many women and children waiting for the men to come home during the war, they want to see their subconscious feelings represented somewhere they can find. In literature, one can read Hemingway’s Men Without Women. In films, Casablanca can be one such sociological relief for the audience.
Waiting is a painful task after all. When I first watched the film, I was taken aback by the love triangle which was rife with conflict and emotional scars. I knew that the two leads should be together at all costs for they shared the same existential dread/background — Americans in Paris signify a Lost Generation — and they had little to no way to salvage what was once lost.
But greater ideals like liberty are worth more fighting for. Against the Nazis and Japanese, the protagonists chose to sacrifice their memories for justice. The culmination of themes and cliches that Eco dislikes had fostered a catharsis that eclipsed the emotional prowess of most types of films. You don’t have to be with someone to love them. That may be the hardest thing to do, but it is the only right and responsible act of love.
It is thus curious then to find the same 1942 themes resurface in the 2016 musical La La Land. I first watched this film in the Chicago International Film Festival with no clue that the director was the man I was shaking hands with. Damien Chazelle is a young and talented director whose love for films can be found everywhere in this film. He seems to have a huge respect for Casablanca, so much so since he barely deviated from the narrative beats for his musical.
So the same narrative ires Eco had still persists in the film but in a different context. With Casablanca, it is the patriotism for a worldly cause that makes our protagonists let go of each other and thus infuse something deeper than romance in their loves. In La La Land, it is that dreams are more important than romance.
Which leads to another interesting observation: Romance films always betray the premise. Romance is not important to passionate love. Rather, it is that they tackle other types of hard-hitting subjects through this seemingly benign premise. The aspirations the two leads this time share is a crack at Hollywood’s competitive world. They know it is ridiculous and tough to chase these dreams, but they do it anyway.
The lyrics of “Another Day of Sun” best represent these feelings from such dreamers:
Without a nickel to my name
Hopped a bus, here I came
Could be brave or just insane
We’ll have to see
‘Cause maybe in that sleepy town
He’ll sit one day, the lights are down
He’ll see my face and think of how he…
…used to know me
Climb these hills
I’m reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights that shine
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun
As the dancers and singers dance in the middle of a Los Angeles highway, you get the impression that La La Land is indeed just another day of sun so to speak. It is a repeated story, a meme, another film in the cinema that anyone can watch. If Joseph Campbell was alive today, he might make good money writing not a book about the Hero’s Journey but the Lovers’ Journey and his biggest example would be La La Land.
You don’t get any more cliched and typical than this. La La Land is a glorification of the struggles in Hollywood. The protagonists rise and fall before realizing that it is impossible they should be together. It is another “reunion of archetypes” with the same flaws Casablanca has. It should have been another forgettable film, especially in light of films like Moonlight.
But I find it a more fulfilling film than many others I have seen. The passion between the two leads is genuine, their struggles are plotted but real, and they encapsulate my beliefs in what it means to struggle as an artist.
Through the vehicle of romance, La La Land takes us on a simplified, universal love story one can understand when in reality it is a film about artists trying to find a way to express themselves. Stories about artists are not seen as appealing to the mainstream, but romance stories are. To package all the emotional baggage artists feel everyday into a silly romance musical might as well be the best and understandable expression of worries we may not be particularly exposed to. A romance film is better at showing what is seen as obscure and mystifying to be something relatable in the context of love.
As Casablanca isn’t about romance but beliefs to stand up for, La La Land is a film that shows love is more than two people kissing. Dreams are worth pursuing for. Sometimes, a shared moment is more than enough. It is the love between two people who are still dreaming when others have given up that colors a passion stronger than a romance would.
You may be wondering if there are any differences in romance films howsoever. You can fall into the same trappings Eco has and see these films as nothing more but cult films. What differentiates Charade from 愛のむきだし (Love Exposure)? Charade may as well be the snarky 1963 American equivalent of 化物語 (Bakemonogatari) in terms of relationships and humor. 愛のむきだし is literally a film about cults. Sounds different but what looks different on the surface shares the same worries about love. They are always about misunderstandings, people of different social classes or cliques falling in love with each other, and they try to find a way back into love. That’s it. What more can you ask in the realm of romance films?
The specter of Eco’s argument still stands, even when it’s only about Casablanca. After all, aren’t romance films cult films in a way? Most people like to quote the romantic cheesy lines (“Did my heart love ’til now? Forswear its sight. For I never saw true beauty ’til this night.” from Romeo + Juliet) and play romance movie themes while severing any connection to the film howsoever (“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion in Titanic). Korean dramas like 200 Pounds Beauty or 미녀는 괴로워, British films like Bend It Like Beckham, Indian romances like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or दिलवाले दुल्हनिया ले जाएंगे, and more can tell the same old story over and over again.
While it may be tempting to not see everything in such a reductive fashion and view the world in a holier light, narratives are shaped by other narratives and memes craft the conventions of genres. It is this question of formula that some scholars like John G. Cawelti wonder if there are any reason why people like the same old story over and over again. He suspects that “formulaic literature” are simple representations of people’s subconscious, but the argument fails when we talk about bad movies like Cool as Ice. As of yet, nobody has the answers.
At the same time, people like to repeat the idea that all stories are the same. It’s all about the journeys. So following this logic, it might be more constructive and productive to not look into “what” is the film about but “how” the film makes sense of the content.
What makes 聲の形 different from any other romance film? Not much really. You can level the arguments Eco has against Casablanca: it’s a “hodgepodge” of other more established genres and ideas.
The first arc tracks the childhood of the two leads and follows the same tune of school caste works. Bullying, abuse, neglect from teachers, scapegoating, and countless more are trademarks of the genre. There is nothing special in the content.
But watching the beginning of the film without any clue whatsoever is one of the most uncomfortable experiences in cinema. I watched this film alone in Plaza Singapura’s Golden Village cinema; there was a medium-sized audience, usually consisting of couples in their usual movie dates. A middle-aged woman sat beside me and complained about how the theater was cold. When Shouya mimicked Shouko, everyone but the two of us laughed. It was a strange, awkward laugh that barely filled the theater. They weren’t sure if they were supposed to laugh or feel anything else. Meanwhile, the woman and I cringed.
Every time I tell this anecdote to people, they snap at the general movie audience laughing at all. It sounds despicable and demeaning. But I disagree: Romances are rarely about romances but about people struggling to understand (and therefore, love) and the audience has no clue what they are seeing. That’s why they need to relieve themselves with an awkward laugh. It is an understandable reaction to scenes these people must have experienced in life in one form or another. The collectivism found in elementary schools is examined in the film through a school caste lens; it is fully displayed in its grim and dark colors to an audience who may have unsuspectingly partook in this sort of bullying. Like Kawai Miki who believes she has never bullied and sees herself as the nicest human being on the planet, the audience is trying to disengage with the act of bullying. They may have noticed this through the “My Generation” montage that the film is about them and they can’t walk out of the theater just yet; it has only been ten minutes into the film. That’s why they laugh. This need to laugh at scenes they don’t understand and cringe at how matter-of-fact the scenes is told is the most visceral reason why the film works.
People who have access to the Blurays of the film have also displayed an interesting reaction you can’t ever do in a theater: they have the ability to pause the movie and do so with an alarming frequency, especially in the childhood arc. You can find tweets, Reddit posts, and Facebook statuses of people admitting they need a small break from an exhaustingly emotional moment.
There is no doubt in my mind that the childhood arc is the best part of the film and possibly a momentous achievement in anime and films. The myriad responses serve as more than just evidence of its emotional appeal and delicate execution. They also suggest there is a deep understanding of the audience in part of the director and writer.
The audience knows 聲の形 is a “hodgepodge” of disparate elements. There is no way to eliminate that in the romance structure. But director Yamada Naoko and screenwriter Yoshida Reiko can overturn these expectations and twists them into a slightly different path. When Shouya meets Shouko again after all these years, the characters have difficulty expressing with each other. Sign language is scarcely enough for the job. Focus on the facial features, gesturing of hands, and — to use a phrase from kViN’s blog post on Yamada — the “leg shots as a window to the soul” have culminated in a visual language far more expressive than verbal and sign languages. Cheesy romance movie dialog have more or less disappeared. What is left is the shapes of their heartfelt expressions toward each other.
That said, the film still does follow the romance film structure. But its unique presentation allows the film to enter into all kinds of territories that the director and writer are interested in. Suicide and victimization are the most visible running threads. Why would someone find themselves in despair to choose death over living? This may not be the most original sentiment in a romance film, but you can find artifice in how the creators went about things. Shouya’s and Shouko’s reasons are the opposite of each other and yet, they are similar: both see suicide as an option to redeem themselves and not cause any more trouble; yet, Shouya chooses it because he has a roadblock in moving past his sins while Shouko attempts to jump off the window as she sees herself as a parasite on him and her family. These differences of similarities reverberate through visual and auditory motifs as well: splashing water, slippers and sandals, the different types of fences they try to jump off from, fireworks, and so on. Each of these unsuspecting and well-hidden motifs becomes charged when they reappear. The creators are aware of the structure and its cliches, so they can turn it into something else. If you chart the first appearance of the motifs and their last through a horizontal axis of time, it will look like a bullseye target cut into two horizontally.
The intricate attention and care put into what is essentially a memetic structure are mindboggling. Imagine the amount of effort into the tinkering of narrative beats to achieve both a balance of invisibility and visibility when they need to be brought up again. The question now becomes “Why the effort?” and I don’t take “Because it’s good to make beautiful things” as an answer.
If Casablanca is nothing more but a cult film, can 聲の形 rise beyond that niche as well? That remains to be seen, though British newspapers like The Guardian has written a review on it. I have a feeling it will be thanks to the flawed distribution networks of anime films in America and the anti-romance and anti-anime sentiments people might have. It may have been nominated for excellence by the Japan Film Academy, but films outside Hollywood are always seen as a curio created by other less notable industries.
That however falls into the flawed thinking of “what” is a romance film. It is impossible to answer why Yamada and Yoshida took their time to write this detailed story outline with this line of thinking. Nothing interesting will come out. Instead, you will find the same old story again. Another cult movie. The more interesting question is how the story can touch people with the same story and themes.
Noble notions of sacrifice and pursuit of dreams are noble only if we understand how it’s noble. At first, it looks like a tautology; however, it is easy for a corrupt person to sacrifice love and pursue their dreams in the name of power. Romance films show us why such acts are noble in essence and not just in name.
Indeed, 聲の形 shows why, of all the flawed characters, it is Shouya who ends up as being noble. He doesn’t see himself as a knight for Shouko’s love; he might not be even aware that she has a crush on him. No, he asks himself many times what it means to be forgiven and how you are supposed to do it. He is aware of his hypocrisy and others. He struggles with it and at one point, Shouya reveals his disdain for everyone he calls a friend and whines about their hypocrisy. It is impossible to forgive him completely for his sins. He is unlikable — and that’s why people feel a connection toward him.
It is this repulsion toward his character that opens up a whole new world of meaning to the audience. Unlikable protagonists are the bread and butter of romance films, but Shouya is reworked in such a way that it’s a story about his redemption.
For him, his affection toward Shouko isn’t romance but asking for forgiveness. To love is to be forgiven. One can forgive others for leaving them for a greater good or dreams, but can one forgive them for the trauma and pain inflicted upon them? Shouko who sees herself as a victim tries to forgive Shouya. But in many instances, she fails because she doesn’t really forgive him. She keeps seeing herself as a victim and a parasite of his acts no matter what she tries to say.
Which follows into the film’s treatment of her suicide attempt. It is a Hollywood-esque climax. A classic treatment with the throes of passion and drama. It is so much the opposite of the film’s usual direction that it is jarring when usually it is the most fitting way to end any other film.
But it does have a purpose. Shouko forgives Shouya by smiling and laughing like they are friends now instead of people latching onto each other. And the cast goes into the cultural festival and Shouya finally looks up and sees the world as it is. Like the high notes mellowing downwards, the film ends where it needs to end and leaves the characters to have their own new beginnings. Everyone is back to living their lives.
It brings to mind a romance film by one of Yamada’s biggest influencers Sofia Coppola. Lost in Translation ends with the two protagonists who have their own lives to lead after their vacation in Japan whispering each other goodbyes before walking off or taking a cab back to their hotels.
While it is not the same thing, it plays on the idea of new beginnings after the throes of passion are over. 聲の形’s passion (or plot) is over and the characters are free to find new passions to be invested in. Maybe they will find something greater than just passion. Who knows. The curtain has dropped, they are living happily ever after, let them be to their own ways.
Is the ending an act of love? It isn’t love if you see love as an act of passion. Likewise, the film isn’t a romance film if you believe romance is only about passion. Love is something more, something you can’t just write off as merely a fervor of passion.
Quentin Tarantino was interviewed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where the director, known for his gory films like Pulp Fiction, revealed his crush on romance comedy films. He admitted he was a fan of “audience manipulation by filmmakers” and was “genuinely touched and having a good time” when he watched them. Then, he launched into a critique similar to my own about the film, You’ve Got Mail. He argued with a critic who wrote the film off that there is a “real verisimilitude” for “describing how big chain stores kill the little stores” and he “actually thought that was one of the only Hollywood movies that actually deals with that subject in a serious way.”
A lover of movies is in my belief a lover of romance movies. It bypasses artistic difficulties by presenting difficult themes in a cute romance film, which can be enjoyed by many. This “reunion of archetypes” should not be criticized or rebuked for its lack of originality; it should be embraced and loved for its undying dedication to be the mirrors to people’s souls.
For romance films are an exploration of the human psyche striving for their goals. So does love with its commonly unassociated themes of forgiveness which are always there. To forgive is to love. And anyone — my sisters, me, Umberto Eco, the couples watching the film, the middle-aged woman sitting beside me — can understand this. Romance films are cult films, but they can also be the voice of a generation struggling to understand love.
Yamada and Yoshida see 聲の形 as another film in the romance genre that can shape the voices of the generation. They happen to do it just goddamn well.