“Here’s a song about nothing and everything at once / all the minutes and the months / nothing and everything at once.”
Today is probably not going to be an exciting day. I have a couple of articles I should finish, starting with this longer essay on Tamako Love Story. I’ll work through a few emails as well, and then probably go out for lunch. In the afternoon, I’ll get more work done and then maybe spend some time with my housemates. I might end the day by going to see a movie, or possibly just lounge around and play some videogames.
A day like that can fade into the blur of days, as they pile up and turn into moments and memories and years. When we look back, such days can often disappear entirely. Humans have a tendency to try and make narratives out of the discordant world we live in; things outside of our control happen according to a tangible pattern, while our own lives contort themselves to present villains and victories, turning points and moral conclusions. Lives lived fade into peaks and valleys, where a simple day of doing what you must and living until the next becomes a lost fragment of the whole.
This framing is a deception, though. Our lives never conform to a convenient narrative, and they are not constructed of climactic turning points, either. We might best remember the flash points of surprise or emotional turmoil, but our lives are truly a progression of the moments in between.
Naoko Yamada understands this. From K-On! to Tamako Market and beyond, her work is largely dedicated to cherishing those moments – to capturing and celebrating the richness of the inbetween. A day spent idly with friends is not truly wasted, and in fact, it’s the accumulation of “regular days” that tends to form our identity far more than the occasional narrative-ready twist. By the end of K-On!, its cast of ordinary girls can look back on the time they spent goofing off and be honestly moved to tears, because all of it meant so much to them. By the end of Tamako Market, Tamako can stand facing the prince of a distant island and say “I’m sorry, but this place is my home. These days are who I am.”
Tamako Love Story is utterly Yamada’s movie, and thus utterly dedicated to the primacy of ordinary days. The film barely has a narrative – though there is certainly character development, it assumes an existing audience relationship with the characters, and mostly just isolates one exact moment in their lives. Through long minutes of ambivalence, boredom, and sudden shock, it captures the tenor of a specific lived space.
The moment it captures is an important one, to be sure. Tamako Love Story frames its romance on the edge of young adulthood, as protagonists Tamako and Mochizou consider for the first time the fact that their lives are about to fundamentally change. The “Love Story” title is almost misleading in that regard – while the film is framed about Mochizou and Tamako expressing their feeling for each other, those feelings are really just one of several ways the film engages with moving past an old self and into a new one.
Anime as a whole is sometimes criticized for being obsessed with nostalgia, with capturing an idyllic dream of high school at the expense of a narrative that might ring true to our experience, or push us forward as people. Nostalgia is thus framed as a kind of running away from the responsibilities of our lives, and high school anime as a kind of escapism. But Tamako Love Story understands that nostalgia is a natural result of everything we experience being inherently fleeting – that even as days blur together, they are always leading up to points where we must let go of the people and places we’ve been. Tamako Love Story is all about fleeting things.
The film’s heroes are preoccupied with the ends of things and the beginning of others. Mochizou, who has always lived in the mochi shop across from Tamako, knows to a certainty that his inbetween days are ending. High school is coming to its end, and given his dreams of studying film, he’s planning on leaving his home and studying in Tokyo. But Mochizou is tied to this place by his feelings for Tamako; he’s loved her for a long time, and he knows this is his last chance to tell her how he feels.
In contrast with Mochizou’s clear anxieties, Tamako’s position might at first seem more simple. Tamako is happy with who and where she is; she loves working with her family in their mochi shop, and plans on carrying on their business into the future. When Mochizou confesses his plans and feelings halfway into the film, it comes as a shock to Tamako. Suddenly the ambitions of her friends seem mature and intimidating, and her own choices seem insufficient. Tamako still loves the market, and no one is judging her for her choices, but hearing the varied goals of everyone else makes her feel small and uncertain just the same.
Part of Tamako’s suffering comes from the responsibilities that have always been a part of her life. As her dad regretfully mentions, Tamako has been working at her family shop ever since her mother’s passing. Tamako might think her choices are childish, but in truth, she’s actually had to spend her childhood acting like an idea of her adult self. Tamako has in some ways taken the place of the mother she always hoped to connect with, and her grief at that loss has been softened by taking on the whole market as a kind of family. In some ways she has never grown up, and in others she is already fully grown.
Love Story’s framing consistently articulates the divergence of these two paths. Tamako is associated with the ground and the market itself; she’s framed looking down in reflection, and her market is brought to life in all manner of ways. Early on, shots traveling forward into depth give the market a sense of three dimensions. Later, the market’s depth is conveyed through movement or through clever transitions, and its personality illustrated at all times of the day.
In contrast with Tamako’s grounded framing, Mochizou is framed as suspended between a cozy past and an open, bracing future. Early scenes in his video club room convey time and familiarity through late afternoon colors and background detail. Scenes consistently return to him huddled over his laptop, replaying idle videos of Tamako like he’s trying to live in their tiny frame. While the past feels tiny, the future is open wide – Mochizou’s thoughts of college are accompanied by shots of the open sky. Even Tamako’s feelings on Mochizou’s future are evoked through flight and the sky, be it the reflection on her classroom windows, a bird passing as she articulates her thoughts, or a direct transition from his starry window to vivid blue.
But beyond clear visual metaphor, Love Story’s framing also ties back to Yamada’s general emphasis on the tiny moments that unexpectedly capture our human complexity. The film’s first scene is a microcosm of her talent, as the experience of watching the mochi shop during another long afternoon is conveyed through well-observed, tangible detail. As Mochizou waits for the hours to pass, the camera focuses on the apple beside him, the one place he himself can focus his attention. Careful animation captures the specificity of his hand motions, emphasizing his lazy body language. As the camera pans out, we see that his and Tamako’s fathers are arguing across the street. Ostensibly the most active part of this sequence, Mochizou’s relative indifference is implied by how they’re initially kept out of the frame. Mochizou is eventually moved to action, but his feelings are clear in the tone of his body language and the focus of the frame.
This focus on body language and precise framing continues throughout the film, a tactic echoing all of Yamada’s work. Careful attention is paid to small gestures of hands and overall body language. Eyes fidget and shift, mouths convey delight or scorn without a spoken word. And legs are ever-present, given constant focus all through unrelated or idle conversations. Yamada’s focus on legs carries over even into productions where she’s just directing a single episode, like Hyouka. She seems to see them almost as a more honest window to the soul, the segment of our bodies that is least guarded when we can’t say the things we must. Only a director with the talent and resources of Yamada could truly succeed in capturing the primacy of small moments; such close reading of physical presence as emotional marker demands an honest eye and careful, rigorous animation.
These carefully observed details are matched by an equally well-realized larger world. Tamako Market’s titular market was as much of a protagonist as any other character in that series, and though that market isn’t as central to this film, it still stands as Tamako’s icon of stability. Kyoto hallmarks like the stepping stones of the Kamo River are rendered in gorgeous detail, and Tamako’s high school is brought to life through the same style of incidental shots that made K-On!’s world real.
At times, the closeness of these characters’ feelings can be too much to take. Love Story isn’t afraid of fully embracing the emotional realities of its characters; when Tamako first learns the truth from Mochizou, her world literally disappears, fading into a shimmering glaze of light and color. Mochizou’s later melancholy is captured through more subtle interpretation, as the distant street lights blur into the evening glow. Love Story’s color work mirrors the emotional tenor of its characters, be they ensconced in warm memories or cast adrift by the night sky.
Tamako Love Story captures this moment, but this moment must end. Tamako ultimately embodies the central contradiction of this story, trapped as she is between the identity she’s become so comfortable with and the future she feels she must grasp. While Mochizou frets about losing her, she worries about losing everything. Mochizou’s feelings are tempestuous, and he’s often presented as the viewpoint character, but Tamako is aligned with Yamada’s ambiguous feelings towards nostalgia, selfhood, and home more than anything else.
The film does not settle on an easy solution for Tamako’s problems. Though she eventually does confess her feelings, the film’s scope is too broad for that to qualify as tying a bow on its fundamental questions. “Moving on and leaving the past behind” isn’t a real answer – Tamako loves her home, and is comfortable having her identity tied to it. This place made her, and she wants to carry on its traditions.
Tamako Love Story is too ambiguous to present a single answer, but personally, I see something strong and valuable in Tamako’s dedication to her home. Nostalgia by itself is not the enemy – it’s only the absence of forward movement that holds us back. If we can move forward and reach towards fuller selves while still cherishing the people and places that brought us this far, we are stronger for it. Tamako ultimately finds confidence in the actions of her absent mother; her friends make different choices, but all of them are worthy ones. So it goes.
In a world full of contradictory messages and insubstantial solutions, moments passing by is sometimes all we can count on. Whether we scorn them as nostalgia or embrace them as home, we are built of moments and memories, constructed of tiny things. Tamako’s dedication to the place she loves could easily pass for Yamada’s own; the dignity of their choices is equally great. In these small moments Yamada presents, we can see the infinite lattice work design of the whole, a whirl of colors that spiral in untraceable patterns to futures we’d never predict. We are made of such nothings, such idle hours and absently clasped hands. Tamako Love Story is a film about nothing, and everything at once.
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