Art will always resonate beyond its original intent. Though classic Japanese samurai films (chanbara) were made for a specific audience and hewn from a specific history, their influence far outgrew this. The chanbara of Kurosawa famously became the Westerns of Leone but the impact did not end here. The debut feature of
Sôshi Masumoto explores how the cinema of the past creates the cinema of the present, and how inspiration can be found in the most atypical of places. It revolves around a group of high-school students obsessed with movies and moviemaking, aspiring to be the directors of the future. A central conflict takes place between two aspiring directors, both female. One, Karin, wants to make teen romances – an artistic desire that is in keeping with stereotypical expectations – while our protagonist, Barefoot (Marika Itô), wants to make a samurai film.
A high-school girl obsessing over samurais is a purposeful subversion of expectations, and is the heart of the film’s message about the nature of art. Her beloved films were not made with somebody like her in mind, and exist over sixty years in the past, yet they inspire her in the present. The film is interested in how the cinema of the past talks to the present, and in how this will shape cinema going forward. The atypicality of Barefoot is core to her characterisation; the school is willing to financially support Karin’s conventional dreams while Barefoot has to make her own way. Her every step is a struggle, this process highlighting her tenacity while also showing the difficulty of existing outside of expectation. This is played for laughs though, in keeping with the overall light tone of what is an incredibly pleasant, and charming, film. It’s a Summer Film denotes its tone in its title: it is a breezy affair more interested in summer fun than a deep meditation on cinematic gatekeeping.
There are ideas here, though. The crux of the film is re-interpretation: how one thing can mean different things to different people. The most obvious expression of this is the pairing of Barefoot with her genre of choice: the prim and proper schoolgirl, shy and unassuming, juxtaposed with the masculine bravado of the chanbara genre. The film follows this idea nicely, pushing it towards discovery and revelations about why certain genres persist through time – ultimately concluding with an inclusive message that shows the need for typical and atypical expression (and that certain things are not as different as they seem). It is a light coming-of-age story that uses the process of understanding how to make a film, and how a film finds itself in its construction, as a reflection of how we find ourselves through our adolescence. None of this is stated, and could be pushed towards more, but the light subtext is pleasing enough.
Much like the coming-of-age adolescents at its core, It’s a Summer Film doesn’t quite come together. It is a film about wildly ambitious teens and is, itself, rather ambitious. It does, alas, push this too far, taking on too much and spreading itself too thinly. It is a work in need of greater focus, with a few too many extraneous plot lines. The central tale of a film about a group of high schoolers finding themselves through film, and expressing themselves atypically, is very endearing; the film just also happens to be a high-concept science fiction film about the future of cinema. A third of the way through comes a sci-fi twist – mentioned in the film’s synopsis but presented as a reveal in the movie itself – that feels initially incongruous, and would work better if it was not a surprise. The film is aware of people’s concerns about the future of cinema, cognisant of a wider dialogue about how the classics lay in the past and the future takes us further away from a perceived golden age. It uses this fear to, thankfully, give a more positive message but this is all done very overtly. The sci-fi conceit is far too literal, and takes away from the endearing simplicity of the narrative. Ideas that could have been gestured towards, or dealt with more subtextually, are given literal manifestations and ultimately distract.
Stylistically, the film is also a tad utilitarian. The somewhat simple construction is in concert with the filmmaking in the narrative, but a bit more style would go a long way. We see parts of the samurai film the characters are making, and it is a fun pastiche – and a more stylish work. These affectations could trickle down into the wider film, and make the ideas around inspiration more pronounced, but the simpler style does foreground character nicely. After all, the characters here are charming. Though there are complexities at the edge, It’s a Summer Film works best as a light hearted comedy. It is funny enough, well made enough and creative enough. It may push beyond its limits, and in doing so steps outside of its area of expertise, but even these ambitions are endearing. Nothing here is taken too seriously and the conclusion is enjoyable. Fundamentally, the film bites off more than it can chew but it is still a satisfying summer snack.