Japan in 1937 – film is propaganda, yet Hiroshi Shimizu once again does what he needs to do in managing to pay mere lip service to his studio’s aims. Star Athlete (花形選手, Hanagata senshu) is, ostensibly, a college comedy in which a group of university students debate the merits of physical vs cerebral strength and the place of the individual within the group yet it resolutely refuses to give in to the prevailing narrative of the day that those who cannot or will not conform must be left behind.
Seki (Shuji Sano) is the star of the athletics club and shares a friendly rivalry with his best friend Tani (Chishu Ryu). Tani likes to train relentlessly but Seki thinks that winning is the most important thing and perhaps it’s better to be adequately rested to compete at full strength. While the two of them are arguing about the best way to be productive, their two friends prefer to settle the matter by sleeping. The bulk of the action takes place as the guys take part in a military training exercise which takes the form of a long country march requiring an overnight stay in a distant town. The interpersonal drama deepens as Seki develops an interest in a local girl who may or may not be a prostitute, casting him into disrepute with his teammates though he’s ultimately saved by Tani (in an unconventional way).
Far from the austere and didactic nature of many similarly themed films, Shimizu allows his work to remain playful and even a little slapsticky towards the end. These are boys playing at war, splashing through lakes and waving guns around but it’s all fun to them. Their NCO maybe taking things much more seriously but none of these men is actively anticipating that this is a real experience meant to prepare them for the battlefield, just a kind of fun camping trip that they’re obliged to go on as part of their studies. The second half of the trip in which the NCO comes up with a scenario that they’re attempting to rout a number of survivors from a previous battle can’t help but seem ridiculous when their “enemies” are just local townspeople trying to go about their regular business but now frightened thinking the students are out for revenge for ruining their fun the night before.
That said, the boys do pick up some female interest in the form of a gaggle of young women who are all very taken with their fine uniforms. The women continue to track them on their way with a little of their interest returned from the young men (who are forbidden to fraternise). Singing propaganda songs as they go, the troupe also inspires a group of young boys hanging about in the village who try to join in, taken in by Tani’s mocking chant of “winning is the best” and forming a mini column of their own. After this (retrospectively) worrying development which points out the easy spread of patriotic militarism, the most overtly pro-military segment comes right at the end with an odd kind of celebration for one of the men who has received his draft card and will presumably be heading out to Manchuria and a situation which will have little in common with the pleasant boy scout antics of the previous few days.
Physical prowess is the ultimate social marker and Seki leads the pack yet, when he gets himself into trouble, his NCO reminds him that “even stars must obey the rules” and threatens to expel him though relents after Tani takes the opportunity to offer a long overdue sock to the jaw which repairs the boys’ friendship and prevents Seki being thrown out of the group. Seki’s individuality is well and truly squashed in favour of group unity though Shimizu spares us a little of his time to also point out the sorrow of the young woman from the inn, left entirely alone, excluded from all groups as the students leave.
Employing the same ghostly, elliptical technique of forward marching dissolves to advance along the roadway that proved so effective during Mr. Thank you, Shimizu makes great use of location shooting to follow the young men on the march. Though the final scene is once again a humorous one as the two sleepyheaded lazybones attempt to keep pace with the front runners, the preceding scene is another of Shimizu’s favourite sequences of people walking along a road and disappearing below a hill, singing as they go. However, rather than the cheerful, hopeful atmosphere this conveyed in Shiinomi School there is a feeling of foreboding in watching these uniformed boys march away singing, never to reappear. Shimizu casts the “training exercise” as a silly adolescent game in which women and children are allowed to mockingly join in, but he also undercuts the irony with a subtle layer of discomfort that speaks of a disquiet about the road that these young men are marching on, headlong towards an uncertain future.