Tamako Love Story – My Love Letter

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Everybody loves somebody. I love this film.

If someone had asked me a couple of years ago whether a film sequel to the TV anime series, Tamako Market, was going to become a favourite of mine, I probably would have laughed at the thought. Despite being handled by a competent set of staff – many of which had proved themselves with the success of the K-ON! franchise – Tamako Market failed to achieve more than being another cookie-cutter, slice-of-life title with a slew of gimmicks. Although the initial premise showed promise – a sleepy little shopping district, centered on the lives of a couple close families – this was tossed aside in favour of an obnoxious bird named Dera, who served little purpose beyond instigating lowbrow slapstick antics.

Perhaps this decision was the result of Kyoto Animation wanting to take a risk in order to differentiate Tamako Market from the ilk of its genre, but sadly, this ended up being its downfall for many audiences. A good slice-of-life title will effortlessly suck the viewer into the characters’ universe, so that they may feel as though they are a part of that everyday existence. For a show in this genre to succeed, the scriptwriters need to be able to construct believable scenarios and character dialogue, as that will allow us to relate to even the most mundane of events. The problem with Tamako Market was that the show was constantly fighting a losing battle against itself; it tried to make its characters endearing, while at the same time, hoped to stand out by virtue of its one-trick pony, Dera. Unfortunately, it achieved neither for many people, including myself, and as a result was quickly forgotten – only to be remembered as another questionable product of Kyoto Animation’s ambitions.

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But then 2014 came along, and with the release of a film sequel, Tamako Love Story, Naoko Yamada and her staff were able to breathe new life into a forgotten series. Despite possessing the same cast of characters and the tried and true cover of a simple love story, Tamako Love Story ended up as an entirely different beast than its predecessor TV series – one that was ultimately a superior product in every respect. It’s a film that adopts zero pretenses and never tries to be something it’s not. Rather, Tamako Love Story is a genuine and introspective tale of two childhood friends near the end of their adolescent years, faced with the reality of change and slowly developing the resolve to move forward, amidst uncertainty. The film is characterized by its nostalgic tone, captured by Yamada’s personal film-making touches and given a very human aspect through Reiko Yoshida’s stellar scriptwriting. Provided one isn’t averse to a bit of fluff, Tamako Love Story is the type of film that you could watch at any point in your life and enjoy – for the themes are not only universal, but conveyed in the most honest of manners.

Part of the reason for the film’s complete turnaround performance was that Naoko Yamada was consciously aware of Tamako Market’s shortcomings. She realized that audiences had difficulty connecting with the character of Tamako Kitashirakawa – not simply as a component of the story, but as a girl in her teenage years – and wanted the film’s focus to be on her, specifically. Rather than spread their eggs out, Yamada and her staff decided to place them all into one basket and dig down into this period in Tamako’s life where her emotional state was the most fragile. Being a girl who always grew up surrounded by family and friends, Tamako’s existence was a sheltered one. Between the daily routine of school and her family’s mochi shop, Tamako had rarely stepped outside of her comfort zone.

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At the start of the film, this becomes all too apparent to the audience, as Tamako is characterized mainly by her bubbly personality, spacey remarks and slight touch of naiveté. She’s the type of girl that would rarely consider the implications of touching her friend’s behind or joking in public about mochi-shaped breasts. While some audiences may find Tamako’s early actions to be a source of harmless fanservice, there’s a touch of humility to them that one doesn’t always find in mainstream anime productions. Early in the film, Tamako hops, skips and bounces around, exaggerates her responses and laughs at her own bad jokes; she is far from being mature. However, we begin to see a progression towards a Tamako more grounded in reality, following the film’s turning point – the scene where Tamako’s childhood friend, Mochizou, confesses his love to her by the riverbank. It’s at this point in the story where the focus shifts towards Tamako’s emotional state, and looks at how a girl unprepared for romance – and by extension, her future – deals with her bubble being broken. Thankfully, Yamada and Yoshida were given ample creative freedom by Kyoto Animation, so that they could portray Tamako’s vulnerabilities and consequent maturation in a believable light.

Although Naoko Yamada’s previous directorial work on the K-ON! franchise made her into a name to be respected in the anime industry, her expert handling of Tamako Love Story’s screenplay shows her maturation as a director. The amount of detail that she imparts into her storyboards – many of which place great emphasis on Tamako’s body language – goes a long way in allowing the audience to comprehend the weight of Tamako’s anxieties and emphasize with her fumbles. There are no overblown outbursts or tacked-on internal monologues, but rather, powerful scenes of solitude, careful self-reflection and appropriate blushing as Tamako reminisces about being confessed to. A quiet scene of a dazzled Tamako watching the rain is enough for us to understand what’s on her mind, while the simple act of her clenching her heart and staring up into the night sky expresses the uncertainty that she’s currently feeling. During these moments, words need not be spoken, and Yamada best understands this by letting the narrative breathe – so that the film’s audio-visual voice may speak its words and push the emotions of a 17 year old girl to the forefront.

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In a similar vein, Yamada’s cinematography also conveys a high level of technical mastery, even compared to her previous works, and is the force behind the impact of many scenes in Tamako Love Story. Yamada’s core style of directing is rooted in realism, with the ultimate goal of her shots and scene layouts being the expression of reality, as it pertains to the characters. In the case of Tamako and Mochizou’s shared reality, it’s a very emotionally-charged one, given that both characters are in their final year of high-school and Mochizou has chosen to go to Tokyo to study film. As a result, key moments in Tamako Love Story are emphasized by their high-contrast lighting, strong colours, shallow focus shots and the occasional visual allegory – though not to the extent where these techniques break the mold of realism or shift the scene towards a melodramatic atmosphere. The direction is delicate enough for the audience to garner an appreciation for Tamako and Mochizou’s situation, along with the thought that went into constructing each scene.

However, what truly characterizes Yamada’s cinematic style in Tamako Love Story are her subtle creative flourishes. Although far from the realm of an experimental film, Tamako Love Story still displays plenty of bold film-making techniques. For instance, flashback sequences depicting Tamako’s memories as a child are overlaid with a grainy, film filter – with a shaky camera serving as our lens. Yamada’s intention was to depict the flashbacks in a similar manner to a home video, in order to reinforce the idea of a nostalgic attachment between Tamako and Mochizou, as well as the importance of their families and home environment. Additionally, Yamada employs a playful touch of stop-motion animation throughout the film, either to convey a short passage of time or to capture Tamako’s mood once her heart has been set aflutter. Both techniques are very sweet, but appropriate touches to the film, and if anything, serve to make significant moments all the more memorable.

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For scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, she was the perfect fit for Tamako Love Story. Yoshida is usually right at home when she’s writing dialogue for anime encompassing large female casts, such as Aria, Maria-sama ga Miteru and K-ON!. Much like her previous endeavours, Yoshida was successfully able to breathe life into the dynamics between Tamako, Midori and the rest of their circle. Their spoken lines never come across as sounding too mature for girls their age, while their behaviours capture that sort of close-knit, carefree bond that is common between many high-school girls. A character such as Midori is a very strong-willed girl who acts as Tamako’s metaphorical crutch throughout the film. However, Midori hardly feels like she’s there solely to play a supporting role, as her relationship with Tamako is so very personal and heartfelt. She truly cares for the well-being of her close friend and wants to see her succeed at life; in fact, Midori’s happiness is also Tamako’s.

Although one could argue that the girls already had an established dynamic in Tamako Market, the level of situational awareness that Yoshida shows in Tamako Love Story is certainly commendable. There’s a scene where Tamako’s friends attempt to console her about her love problems, whereas in the successive one they attempt to get her to confess to Mochizou by text-spamming him heart emoticons – causing a flustered Tamako to quickly reclaim her cellphone. In the case of the above, Yoshida’s scriptwriting makes a clear distinction between the girls understanding when they should lend a shoulder and when it’s appropriate to tease Tamako to lighten the mood; it’s easily the most convincing display of their friendship, and a scene only someone like Yoshida, who knows a group of teenage girls inside-out, could write.

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While Tamako Love Story may be a film about love, its scope is not strictly limited to that theme, which is an aspect that sets it apart from other romance titles. In fact, the actual love story between Tamako and Mochizou could be seen as a defiance of the traditional outcome of both characters becoming a couple and living happily ever after. This is because Yamada wanted to emphasize the characters developing the conviction to pursue their respective futures, making Tamako Love Story a very poignant coming of age tale. Tamako only begins to experience anxiety over her future after Mochizou confesses to her and states that he’s going to Tokyo to study film. It’s at that point that she realizes her world is changing, her friends are leaving and she hasn’t given her own life enough thought. Throughout the film, Tamako slowly begins to work through this ambiguity by reflecting upon her past, connecting with her parents in a more spiritual sense and hearing her close friends talk about pursuing their dreams. It’s a very down to earth method of communicating her gradual development of confidence, but that’s the beauty of the film. All it takes in the end is a simple scene of Tamako finally being able to catch her baton during a performance to convey that she’s feeling on top of the world – it’s a powerful, completely understated moment of an adolescent girl coming to terms with herself.

Kyoto Animation may have experienced a brief misstep by trying too hard to forge Tamako Market an identity, but they certainly got right back on track with Tamako Love Story. Between Naoko Yamada’s superb cinematic direction and Reiko Yoshida’s entirely natural-sounding script, the two were able to make up for the shortcomings of the TV series with flying colours. Tamako Love Story is ultimately a very passionate work that could have only come about due to the collaborative efforts between some of the anime industry’s most proficient female minds. The amount of familiarity with the scenarios, the level of detail in Tamako’s portrayal, and the delicacy of the film’s expression of its primary themes should all be taken as a big boost of confidence for women working in the anime industry. Tamako Love Story is simply the best piece of work that Kyoto Animation has produced to date, and it’s not every day that you see something so simple be so effective.

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Additional Readings

If you’re curious about hearing what director Naoko Yamada had to say about Tamako Love Story, please check out these links for a couple of translated interviews. These were the sources that I primarily used when writing this article, so there’s plenty of information to be found if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of this film!

Interview with director Naoko Yamada following release of the BD/DVDs

March 2014  Newtype interview with director Naoko Yamada – Part 1

March 2014 Newtype interview with director Naoko Yamada – Part 2

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2 responses to “Tamako Love Story – My Love Letter

  1. I agree that “Tamako Love Story” is wonderful, and that Naoko Yamada righted most of the wrongs of the decidedly mediocre “Tamako Market” with this movie.

    However, when it comes to the “best piece of work Kyoto Animation has produced to date,” I have to part company with you and cast my vote for the perpetually underrated “Hyouka.”

    I would argue that “Hoyuka’s” animation was even more spectacular – and more creative – than “Tamako Love Story,” but more importantly, that the love story at its core, which was also a tale of coming of age, was more subtly and profoundly told. It is simply impossible to get to the end of “Hyouka,” and not feel absolutely overwhelmed by Oreki’s “dream” confession to Chitanda. (Recognizing that not everyone finds “Hyouka” as compelling as I do, and many may never GET to the end!)

    Mind you, that’s not to take anything away from this movie, which is, as you say, fantastic.

    It’s just that I personally believe “Hyouka” is unequivocally the best anime ever made…

    (How’s that for swooping in to make a comment and sidetracking the whole point of the post it refers to!)

    • Glad to see you enjoyed Tamako Love Story and I appreciate hearing your thoughts! I think I can safely say that Tamako Love Story holds a special place in my heart right now for its themes and portrayal of the lead heroine. I watched the film a couple of weeks ago and am still in awe!

      It’s been a while since I watched Hyouka and admittedly I wasn’t super keen on it back then. I do respect Takemoto a great deal, and would certainly place him on par with Yamada, for the title of Kyo Ani’s best director. Takemoto’s style tends to focus more on a slower-paced, cinematic atmosphere, and that’s the sort of approach I love seeing – especially in a TV anime. Unfortunately, he’s usually stuck directing shows where the source material isn’t that great, so the fact that many of shows he’s worked on turn out as well as they did is a testament to his ability. I would like to revisit Hyouka some day because a lot of people in the community who I respect sing high praises for it. I dunno, maybe I was one of those people who could never get into it. It’s due for a rewatch, in any event.