Starring: Machiko Ono, Osamu Mikai, Yôko Nogiwa
Director: Yoshihiro Fukagawa
Running Time: 114 mins
When Will You Return is a Japanese film about wealthy Japanese couple living in Nanjing who flee China at the end of the Second World War, and struggle to rebuild their life over the following decade back in Japan.
This is an absolutely wonderful film, providing a moving, heartbreaking and heartwarming story of a family through the years, featuring excellent performances across the board, and intimate and elegant directing from start to finish.
First off, however, I will say that this film isn’t the strongest starter. Although it begins to work its wonders from relatively early in the film right to the end, the very opening act lays the groundwork for that in somewhat of a muddled way, jumping between present day and the 1940s, and not quite giving you the smooth introduction to the characters that the film deserves.
But from then on, this film just gets better and better. Following the family’s return to Japan after living a well off life in China, they are thrust into poverty, and it quickly becomes apparent that this new life is going to take its toll on the dynamic of both the family and the relationship between the husband and wife.
And it’s those central relationships and bonds between family members that make this film really special. It’s nothing like The Notebook as the trailers may suggest, but instead something with far more heart at every turn, emphasising the importance of sticking together through thick and thin, a beautiful message carried out incredibly elegantly.
And yet, while the strength of those relationships brings so much joy, it also makes for some heartbreaking drama, as the family are thrust into poverty and find it almost impossible to find their feet over the course of the following decade, with more than a few moments that brought me very close to tears.
Moving on from the story, the directing by Yoshihiro Fukugawa is truly wonderful. While he manages to capture the hardships the family suffer perfectly, it’s never portrayed in an overpowering manner, with their strength and love always shining brightest.
However, Fukugawa does a brilliant job at making the film a convincing and consistently engrossing watch, by paying strong attention to historical detail, and in doing so creating an immersive and visually beautiful watch throughout, complementing the film’s more uplifting side wonderfully.
Finally, the performances. Just as delightful as the film’s heart, and just as effective at portraying genuine drama, the actors are all excellent across the board. However, the stand out is easily Machiko Ono, who plays Tomoko, the young mother at the centre of the years of hardship. Fitting the film’s elegant tone perfectly, she portrays her character’s plight with heart and grace, never resorting to melodrama, and instead proving one of the most delightful onscreen presences you’ve seen in a long time.
Overall, I loved When Will You Return. Although slow starting, it’s the perfect template for a period family, historical and romantic drama. Full of genuine heart from start to finish, it makes a both heartbreaking and heartwarming story utterly engrossing throughout, and with equally enchanting directing and performances, it’s an absolute gem, which is why I’m giving it an 8.2.