‘My Sunshine’ Review: Hiroshi Okuyama’s Lilting, Lovely Coming-of-Ager Skates at the Edge of Darkness

As lovely and lilting as hearing Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” over a crackly record player on a snow-flecked day, Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Okuyama’s second feature “My Sunshine” is a moving coming-of-age drama about kids facing up to the troubles of adulthood.

This gently composed story of an ice-skating coach on the island of Hokkaido, and his two young pupils, has darker dynamics under its sleeve than the emotionally generous time-to-face-the-music-of-growing-up story that’s on its surface. It’s told in furtive glances and silent pacts against a frost-dappled backdrop, the end of winter coming soon, as two adolescents form a bond on the ice rink that complicates the private life of their instructor. Japan would be wise to submit “My Sunshine,” the second feature from “Jesus” director Okuyama, for the Best International Feature Oscar. Both the glass-half-full and the glass-half-empty corners of the audience will resonate with Okuyama’s understated storytelling as this triad gets trickier as the movie moves along.

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On Hokkaido, a world far from the bustle of Japan, young boy Takuya (Keitatsu Koshiyama) suffers nervousness in class and a speech impediment, despite a wonder-eyed curiosity for the world as he’s transfixed by the flakes falling of a new winter. In the same way many of us were forced by our parents or by social pressures to be involved in sports during grade school, he’s an unenthusiastic member of the hockey team. There, on the ice, during yet another game faltered, he espies Sakura (Kiara Takanashi), an elegant peer pirouetting on the rink. She’s a figure skater, an extracurricular activity seemingly more preferred to hockey by Takuya, who seems palpably boxed in by participating in yet another boys’ sport. Okuyama’s film does not spare on the implications of Takuya yearning to be part of a sport that’s more traditionally female-dominated, and that extends to the story of Sakura’s coach, Arakawa (Sôsuke Ikematsu).

My Sunshine
‘My Sunshine’Courtesy Cinetic Media

He’s a onetime champion ice skater who’s abandoned his dreams of yonder days to now coach kids at this particular Hokkaido school. When not teaching, Arakawa drives the ice resurfacer listlessly before going home to his live-in (and evidently long lived-with) boyfriend. As “My Sunshine” unfolds and the seasons begin to change, Arakawa’s at-home relationship becomes increasingly strained by the eventual bond he forms with Takuya, whom he takes under his wing, and Sakura, whom Takuya idolizes. Sakura, riding home from school with her mother, spots Arakawa with his partner in their car, taking survey of the situation.

That Arakawa eventually loans Takuya his old skates suggests he sees part of his old self in this younger boy, awakening tensions at home that were likely already there to begin with. The friendship of the trio, as they prepare for an upcoming competition and learn each other’s rhythms across waltzes and skates on the ice, plays out at a mildly ambling pace, set to oldies like The Zombies’ cover of Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head.” Everyone is indeed going out of their heads here as jealousies set in that interrupt all their back-at-home lives.

What is Sakura thinking when she sees Arakawa get into a car with his boyfriend? Okuyama doesn’t tell us in any explicit terms, though it’s obvious she’s challenged by this confrontation with the private lives of adults. Even as Sakura and Takuya develop an innocent friendship, it slowly starts to curdle as each one’s idolization of their instructor infects all their lives.

Okuyama based this lovely and tenderly realized feature on his own experiences as an elementary school figure skater. Though the closer you look, the darker “My Sunshine” starts to get, as Arakawa’s private life falls apart — even despite what is an obviously long-held intimate relationship, he and his boyfriend sharing a cigarette on their balcony, or debating what’s left of their love in bed. Working as his own cinematographer, Okuyama paints “My Sunshine” as a plaintive story of ambitions dashed and a too-closeness forming in a boxed-in aspect ratio. The filmmaker creates a tactile universe of nostalgia and regret, heavier on suggestion than explication.

The director is obviously gifted with child actors, as both Koshiyama and Takanashi have just a few credits to their name, but manage to convey years’ worth of watching life from beyond a pane of glass here. Takuya, Sakura, and Arakawa are strangers drawn to each other for inexplicable reasons. But anyone who’s suffered the pangs of grade school, and the wanting to be someone other than you are, will relate to their emotional arcs. Snow melts and ice shatters, but the formative memories of youth stay with you.

Grade: A-

“My Sunshine” premiered in the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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