‘Our Story’ and the Possibilities of Literature

‘Our Story’ and the Possibilities of Literature
Photo Credit: CatchPlay

What you need to know

The manga-influenced ‘Our Story’ has the charms of a coming of age story, but also contemplates the power of literature.

In Japan, young adult fiction is called “light novels” (raito noberu / ライトノベル), and they’re popular. Novelist Aizawa Sako wrote one called The God of Fiction in 2016, and it sold well, going through seven printings. Our Story (Shōsetsu no kamisama / 小説の神様 2020) is the movie version, but it’s much more than a mere attempt to piggyback off the success of the novel.

Directed by Kubo Shigeaki from an adapted script by Kamata Tetsurō, Our Story is kinetic, musical, and colorful (though it starts in black and white). It has something to say about the power of literature, too. There are very few innovations, but the film’s execution is consummately skillful. Renowned film producer Iain Smith once said that “Making a film is a series of problems to solve.” Our Story shows what it’s like when the filmmakers get it right.

The weakest link is, ironically for a novel adaptation, the plot. A lot of the foreshadowing sets up unintended expectations, so to keep you from being disappointed, I’m going to spoil everything.

Chitani Ichiya (Sato Taiki, from boy band Exile) is a high school novelist who has written a beautiful debut under a nom de plume. But terrible online reviews give him writer’s block. His publisher (Yamamoto Mirai) suggests collaborating with another pseudonymous high school novelist (how many are there?), whose books actually sell. That turns out to be Koyurugi Shiina (Hashimoto Kanna), a girl in his class. Koyurugi needs Chitani because, we later learn, she can no longer physically write: Her style so closely resembles that of her favorite author that the author’s fans accused her of plagiarism and canceled her online, giving her PTSD.

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Photo Credit: CatchPlay

But this too-perfect match starts off on the wrong foot when she overhears his pessimism about the power of novels. “How can you say that!” she scolds. “Haven’t you heard of the God of Fiction?” He has not.

Without ever falling in love, the two learn to work together and lift each other up in their darkest hour, reigniting their passion for literature. You know the drill. More interesting is how the film manages to cover this main plot, a flashback subplot, and three subplots featuring supporting characters, all in 106 minutes.

The answer is lots and lots of J-Pop montage sequences, edited by Tsuyoshi Wada. I once faulted Shinkai Makoto’s Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019) for using four of these; Our Story seemingly has enough to fill a whole album (though the credits list just six songs). Director Kubo is a music video and action film veteran (the films feature Exile), so these montage sequences aren’t mere filler — they’re rousing and reinvigorating. Perhaps another reason the montage trick doesn’t get old is because the multiple plotlines could never be strung together otherwise. It’s a problem well-solved.

Another pop medium whose influence is felt is manga. The shot compositions feel like the director used the 2019-2020 manga adaptation of the novel by Tenamachi Saho as a storyboard. This is a good thing: The manga and anime aesthetic has a purity of form, a cleanliness and order that the Modernist painters would’ve envied. Here, this is complemented by the sheer joy of the fully saturated color in cinematographer Terukoku Asaka’s images. I haven’t seen colors so vivid since the recovered footage in Shirkers (2018).

The color serves another problem-solving purpose. An enduring question of literary cinema is how to depict the inherently interior (and therefore, to others, boring) activity of writing. For this, fantastical montages don’t count, though the film gives us one anyway. One solution is to use color to symbolize creative inspiration, and the scene that does this feels magical, even if it is a bit over the top.

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Photo Credit: CatchPlay

The other solution the film gives us takes a bit more explaining. Traditionally, writing was an actual physical labor. You’ll know this if you’ve ever had to handwrite exam essays. A film could therefore show the writer hard at work as a metonymy for the writing itself. There’s necessarily a gradual transition time between this act of writing and when the writer reads what was set down. It’s writing divorced into two separate acts — physical labor, and then contemplative review.

Digital technology helps Our Story solve this problem. When Chitani types out the story with Koruyugi looking over his shoulder, the physical labor is reduced to simply hitting some keys (and, to be nitpicky for a second, far fewer keys than would actually be necessary in real life). Writing can then be presented mostly as reading back the nigh instantaneous manifestations of one’s ideas. They read while they write, and so the novel literally comes together as they look on. Their reaction is immediately caught on camera.

All of this — the mediocre story, the essential soundtrack, the manga aesthetic, the vibrant colors, and the cinematic presentation of writing — creates a paradox. Our Story is a film defending the power of literature that only works because of elements drawn from other media. Does this mean that literature today is dead? Far from it. What it does mean is that we should remain open to the possibility that literature, while still literature, evolves along with the rest of the media ecosystem.

Cinema, which I’d argue is a type of literature, evolves as well. Film has always been an accumulative medium, a time capsule of media history. Our Story does a wonderful job of resolving the entailing paradoxes.

READ NEXT: Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’: An Oscar-Deserving Ode To the American West

Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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