Love & Pop (1998)

Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami (In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies), “Love and Pop” tells the story of four high-school girls as they get involved in the world of “compensated dating”. The film’s protagonist is Hiromi (Asumi Miwa) who lives with her parents and younger sister. As the girls wander round the streets of Shinjuku they engage in the practice of compensated dating, where older men will pay them for their time. While out shopping, Hiromi spots an expensive ring that she would like to buy. Her friends agree to help her by going as a group to karaoke with a man. At the end of their date the man asks them each to chew a grape and spit it back into their hands. These he puts in sealed containers, asking them for a false name or high-school to attribute to each. Following the date Hiromi decides they should split the money, still leaving her short of the cash she needs to buy the ring. Heading off alone she finds other men to accompany and becomes involved in increasingly dangerous and sexualised situations.

Director Hideaki Anno, who also wrote the screenplay, is best known for his work on the anime series Evangelion. In “Love & Pop” it seems that his creative energy was focussed on the style, with Murakami’s story providing the structure. Utilising various unusual camera angles, switching aspect ratios, fish-eye lenses, cameras attached to cups, train-sets and more, help to create an endlessly inventive world that is in keeping with the minds of these young protagonists. You get the sense that you are seeing everything from their perspective, one that is vibrant, inventive, full of fun, curious, a little disorientating, but above all alive. The actresses all do a great job with their characters and you quickly learn to distinguish them by their particular traits. Tadanobu Asano also appears as a peculiar figure who communicates primarily with a stuffed animal.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age story. We see Hiromi grow up rapidly from a fun-loving teen to someone who realises the dangers that life presents. “Love & Pop” deals with the issue of “compensated dating” in an even-headed way, with most of their encounters being fairly mundane (albeit perhaps incomprehensible to people outside Japan), while not ignoring the inherent dangers of what they are doing. The men that approach them are portrayed as oddballs, but not psychopathic. Similarly the girls are rarely portrayed as victims, but bold, confident young women, despite a certain naivety or carelessness. Another of the themes, and one that I feel Anno particularly drew out, was that of communication and isolation. One sequence features two characters using sign-language to converse over train tracks, and much of the plot revolves around the use of a phone on which characters leave message which are later replied to by unknown men. Throughout there is the feeling that characters are speaking at one another rather than genuinely communicating. The friendship of the main characters is described not as them telling each other everything, but knowing when not to ask questions. The endless stream of voice messages on the phone are a tragic example of a multitude of people who are calling out for somebody to genuinely connect with. I would highly recommend this movie. The story is unique and it is layered with various themes that make it worth thinking about.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Oppai Volleyball (2009)

5 Junior High School boys share the same dream. Of touching, or even seeing a pair of breasts. When a new young female teacher, Mikako Terashima, is put in charge of their volleyball team they make her a deal: If they win a game in the upcoming tournament she will show them her breasts. The only problem is that they’re hopeless at volleyball,  having never played or even trained before. But with this fantastic reward ahead of them the boys suddenly find a renewed will to train hard and persevere. The film also looks at the life of their teacher and her reasons for moving to a new school and her passion for education.

The film works well as a light high-school comedy. Plenty of jokes and a good summer soundtrack. Mikako’s story is intended to add a sense of drama to the story with her contemplations on her career. This does add an element of gravitas to the largely frivolous story, but at times seems an unusual contrast. The film captures the youthful spirit and the jokes are funny, albeit mostly on the same theme. The acting is also solid from Ayase Haruka, as the overwhelmed teacher, and the boys, who deliver their lines with real zeal.

Oppai Volleyball (or Boob Volleyball) great feel-good summer sports film with an unusual MacGuffin (or pair of MacGuffins) providing a look at the humorous side of adolescence and education. Teaching us, in a roundabout way, that working hard for a goal you believe in is a noble thing.

Based on a novel by Mizuno Munenori.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

Mondai no nai Watashitachi (2004)


The film revolves around Miyo, the leader of a group of bullies, who are picking on another girl Maria. When a new girl Mika joins the class and becomes the new class leader and targets Miyo, Miyo realises the error of her ways and attempts to stop the cycle of bullying. Having solved bullying once and for al at their schooll, Miyo is presented with another dilemma. After catching her teacher stealing from a convenience store she becomes targeted by her own class teacher.

This film is one of the worst I have ever seen. Ridiculous story and amateurish direction mean there is almost no tension throughout. The conflict established in the opening scenes is solved by the halfway point meaning the film feels like two short stories welded together. The solution to their problems can be worked out by the audience a long time before the characters realise the best course of action. Add to this the increasingly unbelievable scenarios, glaring plot holes and illogical actions and reactions and you have this disaster of a film. The acting is as patchy as the story and adds to the feeling of watching a poorly scripted television drama.

This could have been good as the problem of bullying is a serious one, but the film underplays the severity of it to such a degree you feel no sympathy for characters and little understanding of the problem beyond clichéd back stories. The only reason you might watch this film is to see how not to write a compelling drama. The moral is that bullying is bad, something which doesn’t require a film to propound and heavy-handed, inept storytelling such as this does nothing to warrant it’s tackling such a subject.

Based on the novel by Maki Ushida.

Swing Girls (2004)

A remedial maths class tries to get out of studying over the summer vacation by offering to take lunch to the brass band (who are playing at a school baseball game). The girls manage to hospitalise the entire band (with the lunch) and are then forced to replace them. When the band recovers, some of the girls still want to play and decide to start a rival jazz group. The plot is very formulaic, with a few sub-plots and side-stories to fill out the running time. Basically, the hopeless girls must come together to beat the odds and take on the other bands in a competition at the end of the movie.

While the story is very simple and there are few surprises, there are some good jokes spread throughout and genuinely amusing situations. The main problem I had with the movie was with the writing, as some of the dialogue seemed forced and the girls’ speech sounds unnatural. The second problem is that the leads are not presented sympathetically from the beginning and you have to do a lot of work to figure out why you should be rooting for them. A few of the jokes do fall flat for these reasons, and others are so predictable that they provoke little laughter. That said there are a lot of positives; the direction is good and the girls jazz performances are fantastic.

The film works as a feel-good comedy, albeit overly similar to other films in the genre, such as “Waterboys” (by the same director) or “Oppai Volleyball”. A celebration of hard-work and enthusiasm, and the power of music to inspire a lazy, ill-disciplined generation. Probably one of the better examples of the genre, but it occasionally feels almost too cynically put together, lacking a real emotional core.

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Based on the best-selling novel, the manga follows the story of a Shiro Iwa Junior High School Class as they are selected to take part in ‘The Program’, which involves them being shipped to an island and forced to fight until only one survives. Most people will be familiar with the plot from the cult film that came out in 2000 (the same year the manga began publication). Due to the form the manga is able to follow the novel much more closely, includes more details, both on the world that the story takes place in, and spends more time with each of the characters. There are a huge cast of characters, with 42 students in the class, plus the instructor and various side characters who we see in flashback (such as friends and family) and the manga does a great job of making all of these children instantly identifiable, through their appearance or character quirks. The manga is far more grotesque and sexually explicit, including scenes of rape and graphic scenes of shootings, stabbings and all manner of other deaths. Some of this is due to the events being depicted visually (as opposed to the book), and being able to have the 15 years old protagonists shown engaging in sex and violent scenes (not possible with the young actors in the film). I found that my reaction to the manga was different from both book and film. In the book, there is the sense of a puzzle that needs to be solved (how will they escape from the island?); the film is more like an action script (being thrilled at every narrow escape, or shocked at every death); while the manga really brings home a sense of futility, and revulsion at the acts of the government. Things really do seem hopeless at times, and each death is made to hurt.

The story moves seamlessly from one character or group to another, and with flash-backs throughout to show their motivations, or further emphasize something about their character. The art style is very detailed, especially on the characters faces and scenes of blood spattering or gore. There are many scenes of characters bawling, or screaming, with snot and tears flowing freely. One of the things I liked about this version of the story was the ability to include dream sequences (not present in the other versions). One such stand out moment sees Shuuya envisioning his classmates as monsters, with sharp teeth and claws coming to get him. If you are a fan of the film and want to find out more about the characters, or like the book and want to see it represented visually, this is a great read.

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005)

linda

Three friends, Kyoko, Kei and Nozomi, decide, after problems with other members leaving, to keep their band together and perform at the closing concert of their high school cultural festival. Wanting a clean break from the songs they have performed before, they choose to cover The Blue Hearts, a popular punk band of the late eighties/ early nineties. The only problem is that they don’t have a lead singer. They recruit a Korean exchange student, Son, who they hope will be able to learn Japanese in time for their performance. The film focuses on the girls’ friendship with each other, as well as their relationships with friends and family.

The plot of this film will be familiar if you have seen any films set in a high school: a group of friends practice for a final competition, or performance. This film almost seems to know that this plot is a cliché, and it never attempts to draw any drama from suggesting that they might not succeed, or that there are any problems to overcome (other than learning the songs). Instead the film takes almost a back seat as we watch their journey. Aided by great direction, which brings this above many similar movies in the genre, it always seems as though we are looking in on their lives. The romantic, if they could be called that, subplots, go nowhere, with one girl turning down her admirer, and another unable to confess her affection for a classmate. There are several scenes involving the girls’ families, or friends, which have no significance to the plot, or don’t reach any sort of resolution. Instead, the film seems to be giving us a snapshot of their lives. This might be frustrating for some, but I found that it made for an interesting film, rather than being an overly dramatised portrayal of high school life. The four lead actresses do a fantastic job, playing their different roles well, and are all likeable. Most of the humour derives from Bae Doona’s Son, who struggles with Japanese and Japanese culture, leading to many scenes of confusion (such as when she attempts to book out a Karaoke booth to practice singing, only to be told that you need to order a drink to be allowed to sing).

The film does a good job of showing a realistic group of friends, with a lot of humour and great direction. The peculiar strength of the film is in its subtlety. While many films of this type would be trying hard to make you sympathise with the characters, using either an unexpected tragedy, or some serious issue, this film seems entirely unaware of your presence, offering only a candid look at the protagonists’ lives. Rather than making you feel distant, this instead makes you want to learn more about these characters, and cheer for them. The film leaves many things unsaid, again unusual in this genre, which usually ties up every subplot neatly. I would recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of this type of high-school film, as it does attempt to do things in a different way, has a lot of humour, and a great soundtrack ending with two fantastic renditions of Blue Hearts classics.