Masterpieces of our time: Tamako Love Story

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There’s a saying that “When you assume, you make an ass of you and me.” When yesterday I had to pick out a movie for the movie night, then there was only one condition: it had to shorter than a hour and a half. So I ran through my entire movie library. I had a ton of classics, but they were all marathons. Finally I found a single suitable candidate, and that was Tamako Love Story.

“Pshaw!” I smugly began my tirade. “You know, I watched the anime and it sucked! There was this annoying bird, everybody was making mochi and nothing really happened the whole series! I bet this movie is gonna be all about nothing happening!” My friend told me to shut up and put the movie on, so I did.

Usually I’m not wrong, but man, was I talking out of my freaking ass! Tamako Love Story blew me away. I had done it great injustice and let me explain to you why.

Before Tamako Love Story was Tamako Market – a series about a cheerful girl named Tamako living an idyllic life as a traditional mochi-maker’s daughter inside the Usagiyama Shopping District with her grandpa and widowed dad. Right across the street is a modern mochi-shop and there lives Mochizou, a cheerful boy who has the hots for Tamako. The anime focused more on the daily life of the residents inside the shopping district and their happy everyday lives. And, oh, there’s Dera, an annoying talking bird from an unknown island kingdom who’s looking for a bride for his liege, so he’ll try to sell off Tamako to his prince.

Nothing really happened in the anime. Dera was an annoying prick the whole series, Tamako was oblivious to Mochizou’s advances, some colorful character got some air-time. Oh, and by the way, the island kingdom prince actually “got together” (using these words really loosely here) with his fortune-teller girl instead, but not really… Status quo was the name of the game. The series was sweet and heartwarming, but it certainly wasn’t memorable. Only two moments stuck out for me: the one part where Tamako’s little sister fell in love with a boy at kindergarten and the second one where Tamako found a tape containing his dad’s high school song which he sang in the school festival to woo Tamako’s future mother. Everything else was a blur of colorful sweets and flowers.

Dera

I must’ve been on drugs or something but Dera got a genuine laugh out of me this time!

Tamako Love Story improved on the series in the sense that

  1. Dera was inside only for a short humorous vignette before the actual story. Good riddance! I really loathed that bird!
  2. Things finally happened and they mattered!

IMDB’s synopsis says: “Tamako’s life changes when her best childhood friend, Mochizou suddenly confessed his love.” That’s it? This is also how they promoted the movie during JAFF on 2014. A movie that’s “just” about a boy confessing his love to a girl. Of course the movie didn’t get much attention outside the rom-com crowd and so I ignored it ’til yesterday when I chanced upon it.

Holy crap, did they really go ham with this movie. The script was tight, editing was absolutely spot-on, the music was pitch-perfect. I loved how the colors were pale but vibrant, animation detailed yet smooth. The movie itself kinda reminded me “5 centimeters per second”, both in art style and story-wise, so Makoto Shinkai fans out there – watch this movie!

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Hello darkness, my friend.

Tamako Love Story wasn’t just a boy-meets-girl rom-com. It was actually a story about Tamako accepting the death of her mother and finally dealing with her suppressed fears and emotions about growing up and moving on from the safe womb of the shopping district. It isn’t explicitly said, but Tamako’s cheerful and friendly nature was all a cover-up for her deep emotional pain she had inside of her ever since her mother passed away.

During that time of grief, Midori stepped into Tamako’s life. In the anime, it felt like Midori had lesbian feelings towards Tamako, but in the movie, Midori’s backstory and motives were finally explained. It was right after Tamako’s mother’s funeral when Midori became a guardian figure for the innocent Tamako, keeping her safe from all the ills of the world. So when Mochizou confessed his love to Tamako, Midori at first pushed Mochizou away. But her steely facade softened as she realized that Mochizou’s feelings were true and Midori stepped down from her role as Tamako’s guardian, allowing Tamako to fly out of her nest. All of this is done with almost samurai-esque brevity on Midori’s part – when she talks, she shoots straight to the point.

All of this is explained not by words, but in pictures instead – a masterpiece of the show, don’t tell idea. When Mochizou confessed his love to Tamako, Tamako first fell into the river and then she ran away from him. During her whole run home, everything’s a haze to her as she sprints through the bright lights and talking colors wondering about her health and why her clothes are so wet, giving the viewer a perfect insight into Tamako’s confused and excited inner world.

The visual motifs themselves were loaded to the brim with hidden meanings. The movie starts off with Mochizou letting an apple roll off his table. When Tamako fell into the river, it was that moment when she was reborn.  And of course Tamako’s a part of the girl’s baton club and obviously she’s not really good at catching the obvious phallic representation of her insecurities!

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I gotta admit, I’m hella envious about the guy’s music stash!

Tamako’s choice of music is also pretty narrow: she literally listens to a single tape the whole movie, the one with her dad’s love song to Tamako’s mother. The only moment Tamako listens to anything else is inside a psych-rock vinyl cafe. The music’s droning and wild in the cafe just as the girl’s inner psyche and the man behind the counter serves dark, bitter coffee with deep koan-like truths. The man’s advice: change is painful, but it is needed to grow. The coffee is bitter, but so is life. Don’t dunk in the milk just yet.

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I think this might be one of the best movies Kyoto Animation has ever done. The whole story is about acceptance of change, the tumultuous first romance, of growing up and becoming independent and thus vulnerable. For the sweet, innocent Tamako, she finally stopped being oblivious to the things going on around her and she finally got to know more about both Mochizou and herself. While in the series nothing happened and Tamako went almost leaps and bounds to keep everything – her family, her friends, her shopping district – just the same way as she was a child forever, in the movie she learned to embrace the change and its inherent insecurities.

So if you’re on the fence if you should see this movie, I can’t stress this enough: if you saw the series and didn’t like it, watch the movie. If you didn’t know about Tamako series at all, watch the movie anyway. There’s no shoujo-manga misunderstanding crap – Tamako Love Story will heal you and it is really worth your time.

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