While many sequels only evoke nostalgia for their predecessors, "Always: Sunset on Third Street 2" shines brighter on almost all fronts. Second installment of the family-friendly dramedy set in '50s Tokyo has a less episodic structure and eclipses the first outing's already impressive visual effects to create a more vivid embrace of the charming ensemble. Film is squarely aimed at Tokyoites' lingering affection for their metropolis and has accordingly garnered socko local B.O. Pic will probably build on the first film's success in some other Asian territories, while specialist fests could consider running both movies as a double act. Pic immediately ups the ante by leading with the logo of TohoScope, Japan's identically proportioned answer to CinemaScope. It then unexpectedly jumps into action with Toho's most famous icon, death-ray-breathing Gojira (aka Godzilla), trashing Tokyo -- and in particular, the auto shop that housed Norifumi Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi) and his family in the first film.
Dynamic start in fact takes place in the imagination of hack writer Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who lives across the street from the Suzukis. Beginning with him, the script reintroduces the many characters who live on Third Street. Newcomers may initially struggle with who's who, but the straightforward narrative provides ample opportunity to catch up. Young tyke Junnosuke (Kenta Suga) continues to live with Chagawa since bargirl Hiromi (Koyuki) deposited him with the writer last time around. Chagawa is determined to become a serious writer, win Hiromi's heart and create a family with her and the adopted kid. Meanwhile, Hiromi is forlorn because Chagawa never visits and her new career as an exotic dancer (never shown onscreen) invites undesirable admirers.
Back at the auto shop, the Suzukis play host to a newcomer: spoiled 7-year-old girl Mika (Ayame Koike), a distant relative. Tensions run highest between her and the Suzukis' territorial 7-year-old son Ippei (Kazuki Koshimizu). Distaff auto mechanic Mutsuko (Maki Horikita), whose apprenticeship with Suzuki Sr. was more central in first pic, is now being romanced by financially troubled culinary student Takeo (Yosuke Asari).
Script is only partially based on elements of the original, and is much more organic. Chagawa's shot at a short-story competish touches virtually all the characters' lives. Thesps seem more comfortable in their roles and are content just to inhabit their characters' skins. No single perf stands out among the solid ensemble, though Fumiyo Kohinata is strong as Junnosuke's sinister biological father.