20th Century Nostalgia

February 1, 2011

20 seiki nostalgia (Japan, 1997)

A video message from the 20th century!

Two high school students set out with video cameras to capture the life in the mid-1990’s Tokyo on film in Masato Hara’s sought after cinematic feast. Inspired by? Nobuhiko Obayashi. Gave inspiration to? Probably Hideaki Anno.

20th Century Nostalgia is a two way movie. The already nostalgic present day that faded but colorful, like an old movie, with backgrounds looking almost like paintings or models. Cut to harshly beautiful video camera footage painted in blue. On top of it, it’s an idol movie. In principle, at least.

Just turned 15 at the beginning of the production, the late 90’s idol and current quality actress Ryoko Hirosue stars in her first film role. A summer vacation film project was nearly completed, only short of ending, and editing. What would this world look like to a space traveler from the future?

The thin red line between idol film and art house can sometimes be fuzzy. Same with innovative cinema and pop art explosion free of coherent form. The mainstream viewer’s burning questions is: is it ethically right to call 20th Century Nostalgia “a movie”?

Hara’s video camera footage is cinematic heroin. He lets the characters do the cinematography for him, often with Hirosuse and co-star Tsutomu Marushima shooting themselves with handheld camera. The following year’s Love & Pop (Hideaki Anno, 1998) is the closest comparison.

But the two are worlds apart. Anno’s darkly themed enjou kousai exploration is a technical bravura playing the game at pop-culture’s own rules. Revealing, revolutionizing. Hara’s energy comes from the heart. His camerawork is a side product of the film’s characters. They run, dance, and sing – yes, Hirosue was a pop idol after all – and do all that while holding a camera. It’s silly, childish, Obayashimish, thoroughly charming.

Hara picked the newcomer of the year award for his work. That was ironic – Hara’s been active behind the camera since 1968 when Art Theater Guild and Tokyo Film Festival awarded his 12-minute student film. After more than a dozen productions along the years, 20th Century Nostalgia was his first financial film project.

But great did not come easy. The filming kicked off in August 1995, only to be suspended for a long time and eventually finished in 1997.

For those looking for a deep analysis on an era, 20th Century Nostalgia may not be one to search for. Commentary is there, but thankfully as supporting element. A director should provide the viewer with the questions, not the answers. But all this can be beside the point if so preferred: Hara’s film can be enjoyed as a purely visual journey.

The structure is uneven. One of the main characters walks out of the story halfway into the film. The project is left in the air. This is true to the entire movie. The most mesmerizing material comes during the first half. The rest of the film is good, but suffers in comparison, partly due to change of tempo.

The criticism is justified, yes. But, the inspiration! During its best moments 20th Century Nostalgia nearly forces the viewer out of the movie room and to the streets to film one’s own movie. Its impact is enormous.

The world just might be a better place if 35 millimeter filmmaking was banned. Don’t you think so?


(for Infinity making of dvd review, please see here)


  1. Splendid article !
    It makes me feel like watching that movie as soon as possible.
    It looks like so inspiring…

    (I bookmark your blog : it’s full of beautiful and surprising discoveries.)

  2. Thank you olivier. I checked your blog, you’ve got some lovely photos there, especially the one with Obayashi and Tomoyo-chan.

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