Review: Happy-Go-Lucky Days

What do you do, and how do you move forward, after you’ve experienced a bittersweet, youthful love?

Happy-Go-Lucky Days, currently streaming at the Asian Pop-up Cinema Festival, examines these questions through three stories, each particular in a variety of ways, but all connected by same threads of sadness, joy, and maturation.

Those who have read or watched an adaptation of Takako Shimura’s works will recognize many of the same facets in this film adaption of one of her earlier manga: soft colors, thoughtful dialogue, and often painfully honest motivations and actions by characters who are clumsily moving along in life. But while Aoi Hana and Hourou Musuko portray the confusion and awkwardness of youth, Happy-Go-Lucky Days features adult protagonists in the first two stories, and a vital adult character in the third. In a way it feels like Hourou Musuko ten years into the future; instead of struggling with sexuality and gender dysphoria, the characters here are more sure of themselves, leading to a focus on their sexual relationships as much as their other internal struggles. The manga was originally published in Manga Erotics F magazine, and it could be described a slightly erotic piece, though it may be more accurate to say that the movie is focused on romantic relationships including sexual encounters.

The film begins with a serendipitous meeting between Ecchan and Aya-san at the wedding of Yuri, a woman they both once dated, and the relationship these two women begin to build. The director, Takuya Sato, does commendable job of conveying the author’s subtle but charming humor while balancing that with a story about two women deeply hurt by their past relationships. Yuri, the former girlfriend for both, and voiced by the wonderful Saori Hayami, calls Ecchan with a sweet, pleading wish, hoping she’ll attend her wedding; yet the sometimes angry (Ecchan doesn’t mince words when describing her former lover), sometimes tearful reactions to Yuri demonstrate how deep she has cut the two. There’s a beautiful interplay occurring, then, as the brokenhearted women engage in what at first appears to be little more than a way to let out frustration and sadness, but which sweetly begins to grow into something deeper.

The next story appears to be a yaoi approach to the first, but it quickly becomes something entirely different. With a lead character that’s difficult to love and often hard to the understand, the episode wonderfully and emphatically expresses the loneliness that all the major characters in the film feel as it peeks in on Sawa-sensei, who is overwhelmed by ungrateful students and perhaps regretful about not following through on a confession given him by a graduating senior. His segment demonstrates the breadth of this short (only about 45 minutes long) film—it’s not purely about physical attraction, nor even about romance; it’s about life, and the joy and difficulties of growing up.

This subtlety is expressed most gently in the first two stories, while the last, which is given in two parts, is most straight-forward and returns to a focus on adolescents (though it should be noted that the first two reflect pain born out of youth or because of youth). The material here may draw the most controversy, if any at all, for its portrayal of elementary-aged kids watching pornography and engaging in sexual experimentation for the first time. The young people aren’t sexualized, however, and humor marks the tone of their story while young (the later companion piece about the same characters’ adolescence is a beautiful, more adult addition). And further, the story between Shin and Mika has an authentic feel, as do the preceding ones.

Three of the film’s actresses discussed that aspect during a panel discussion following the film’s streaming. The seiyuu—Ibuki Kido, Kaori Ishihara, and Ai Fairouz—who played the three major characters in the final story, consistently used words like subtle, realistic, and relatable to describe the anime. This honesty is a defining feature of Shimura’s works and their adaptations thus far, in the characters and their often conflicting thoughts and actions; everyday life expressed in all its boredom and excitement; and problems the characters face, often in ways that aren’t healthy. As those men and women, boys and girls, make questionable decisions, the viewer understands why while also hoping for their best. In a short time, viewers come to know the characters intimately. They resonate with the audience—a hope that each of each of the actresses expressed of this movie, a hope that’s fulfilled.

The film comes across, in fact, as a passion project for many of those involved. Some names are more well known than others, including seiyuu Kana Hanazawa (Ecchan) and Takahiro Sakura (Sawa-sensei), but the result across all measures—voice acting, direction, animation, music—is consistently and exceedingly strong. The staff has taken material that may have otherwise been lost in time (the manga was published between 2002 and 2004) and followed through with a warm, funny, alluring, and above all, authentic film.

Happy-Go-Lucky Days is available to stream until September 19th at the aforementioned festival, and after it’s long poerstponement due the pandemic, will receive its full release on October 23rd. Without a story line, director, or mangaka with strong appeal in the U.S., I wonder if it will receive distribution here. With that uncertainty in mind, I encourage you to watch it within the next few days, so long as you’re comfortable with the content (and perhaps even if not, if you want to be challenged by the beauty with which a story can come together and how realistically humanity, love, and hurt can be expressed).

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