Japan has really taken the underdog triumphs genre of sports comedy to its heart but there can be few better examples than Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 teenage boys x synchronised swimming drama Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ). Where the conventional sports movie may rely on the idea of individual triumph(s), Waterboys, like many similarly themed Japanese movies, has group unity at its core as our group of disparate and previously downtrodden high school boys must find their common rhythm in order to truly be themselves. Setting high school antics to one side and attempting to subvert the normal formula as much as possible, Yaguchi presents a celebration of acceptance and assimilation as difference is never elided but allowed to add to a growing harmony as the boys discover all new sides of themselves in their quest for water borne success.
Dreamy high school boy Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is currently the only member of his high school’s swimming team, and unfortunately he’s not a particularly good swimmer. His interest is piqued when he spots a synchronised swim meet, but he forgets all about it until a new teacher arrives and pledges to revive the school’s fortunes in the pool. Seeing as their new teacher is a pretty young woman with an interest in swimming, the team suddenly becomes much more popular but when she reveals her synchronised swimmer past numbers dwindle once again. Unfortunately, the hot new teacher suddenly has to leave the school so the boys are left to fend for themselves in their new and possibly embarrassing career in a generally feminine sport.
Being teenage boys who only started this whole thing because of the pretty teacher, most of the other guys are are looking for a way out but they also don’t like to be called quitters and so they become determined to make a success of themselves. Suzuki, who secretly wanted to become a synchronised swimmer anyway, is the most committed but also, perhaps, the least confident in his choice of sport as he embarks on a tentative romance with a girl from another school – herself an enthusiast of the more masculine karate. Terrified that she will find out and laugh at him, Suzuki goes to great lengths to avoid telling her what it he really does in his club activities, possibly putting the growing romance at risk in the process.
This mild challenge to masculinity is the main joke of the film but Yaguchi neatly subverts as the guys become cool again thanks to mastering a difficult skill and creating an impressive spectacle through hard work and group mentality. The boys gain an unlikely mentor in the form of a dolphin trainer at Sea World who they hope will be able to train them in the same way he trains his marine creatures but quickly sets them off on some Karate Kid style practical training which involves a lot of menial tasks around the park before dumping them at the local arcade to play dance dance revolution until they learn the art of synchronicity through the power of idol pop. Waterboys is, essentially, a hymn to the harmonious society as the boys eventually find their common rhythm and the power that comes from many acting as one.
Unusually, this does not requite a loss of individuality or for any erasure of essential personality traits but rather a greater need for acceptance as difference merely adds to the strength of the whole. Though there are a fair few gay jokes in what is essentially a movie about high school boys in skimpy trunks, the joke is not homosexuality but reactions to it as Yaguchi adopts a “get over it” attitude and so when one of the boys does confess his love for another it’s treated with no particular reaction other than lack of surprise. Similarly the cross dressing mama-san from the local gay club (a surprising turn from Akira Emoto) becomes one of their greatest supporters and may provide comic relief but is never a figure of fun. In order to succeed the boys will need to be in tune with each other, but that in tune sounds better when it allows for harmony rather than insisting on dull monotony.
Visually inventive and often hilarious, Waterboys lacks the heart of Yaguchi’s similarly plotted Swing Girls but nevertheless succeeds in its tale of inexperienced young guys working hard and achieving the impossible, growing up and discovering new things about themselves as they do. Waterboys may be lighthearted, crowd pleasing fun, but its good natured message that great things are possible when determined people work hard at them together, and that group harmony does not necessarily require social conformity, only add to its warm and gentle tone.
Korean trailer (Korean captions/subtitles only)