Today let's celebrate the anniversary of Naoko Yamada's quiet masterpiece, Tamako Love Story!
Well folks, the moment has finally arrived. I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath, and I sympathize entirely. But at long last, the time for waiting has ended, and the time for celebration has begun. That’s right, it’s the fifth anniversary of Naoko Yamada’s breakout film, Tamako Love Story!
Alright, perhaps not all of you are excited as I am. That’s understandable—Tamako Love Story hasn’t really been streamed or screened outside of Japan, after all. Additionally, the film is a sequel to Tamako Market, itself a relatively underwatched entry in Yamada’s catalogue. And on top of all that, the film isn’t exactly your standard approachable romantic comedy; like many of Yamada’s works, it feels almost like an anime made for anime creators, a vividly creative exploration of what this medium can accomplish.
But that itself is a testament to Tamako Love Story’s brilliance. The film had a profound effect on the career of Naoko Yamada, who would move on to directing films like the devastating A Silent Voice and transcendent Liz and the Blue Bird. It would also reflect the shifting trajectory of Kyoto Animation at large, as the studio continued to transition from the limitations of late night TV anime to the creative and financial freedom of feature films. But none of that would matter if Tamako Love Story weren’t just a terrific film in its own right, and Tamako Love Story certainly is. From its thoughtfully observed characters to its beautiful visual invention, Tamako Love Story is a vivid experience, and a clear embodiment of what Naoko Yamada does so well.
Though she’d worked as an in-betweener and key animator at Kyoto Animation for years, Naoko Yamada didn’t end up with much time to quietly develop her style as a director. Her very first series was the megahit K-On!, which she’d quickly follow up with an even more impressive sequel. All of the strengths that would later define her career are clear to some degree in the evolution of K-On! And even the first season demonstrated her artistic restlessness and general creativity, offering a very ambitious reimagining of an originally 4koma manga.
I’m guessing you’ve seen a few standard 4koma adaptations, even if you’re not aware of it. 4koma manga are four panel gag comics, and it’s generally pretty easy to tell when an anime is adapting one of them. Such anime tend to consist of a lot of little isolated gags, which are either separated by actual scene breaks, or slotted into a larger but somewhat stilted conversation.
In contrast, K-On!’s adaptation asked not “how can we translate these jokes into animation,” and instead “how we can translate this world into animation.” Yamada and her long-time writing collaborator Reiko Yoshida focused less on isolated gags than on successfully evoking the felt experience of lazy high school days with close friends. The resulting show’s sense of atmosphere and warmth is unparalleled, like a ray of sunlight captured in a bottle. And the sequel would double down on this instinct, increasing the show’s tonal and narrative ambitions to create a hilarious yet emotionally rich ode to the passionate friendships and idle adventures of high school.
Yamada’s creative restlessness would see her and Yoshida turning from K-On! for her anime-original followup, Tamako Market. With an entirely open canvas before her, Yamada’s followup would match the adolescent energy and atmospheric strength of K-On! with a story that examined love and growing up from all sides. One young woman discovers she’s in love with her best friend; another struggles to make friends despite her profound social anxiety. One episode memorably reminisces on the romance of Tamako’s own parents, while Tamako herself seems to love not just any one person, but the bustling market she calls home. Our lives are full of tiny loves and moments of brief, transformative wonder, and Yamada’s reverence for these otherworldly moments hangs over her works like a shimmering shroud.
In Tamako Love Story, all of Yamada’s strengths would collide in one of the most rich and beautiful anime of recent years. Her fascination with the quiet, intimate moments that subtly impact the course of our lives. Her preoccupation with transitions and living spaces, and understanding that all of our stories are in some way stories of the places we live. Her profound visual creativity, born of influences that extend beyond animation to encompass both her training in classical painting and her appreciation for arthouse film. Yamada’s stories often reject traditional structure almost entirely, delighting in exploring isolated moments and the sequences of connective tissue that truly make up our lives. At times, overt storytelling will surrender to the incandescent feeling of a moment, as a fresh love bubbles up like watercolor raindrops all around us. All of these strengths would make Tamako Love Story a triumph, both a testament to her career so far and a clear indication of how much further she could go.
Yamada has gone on to direct more acclaimed and inspiring films, each of them preoccupied in their own way with the tiny turning points of our lives. But everything that makes her work great, from her wide range of influences to her fascination with atmosphere and lived experience, was already vividly clear in Tamako Love Story. Here’s to Tamako Love Story, and may Yamada continue to enchant us with such delicate masterpieces for many years to come!
I hope you all find a chance to check out Tamako Love Story, and let me know your own favorite Yamada productions in the comments!
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