#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Boy and His Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

Boy and his samurai poster 1Edo/Tokyo – what difference can a name make? A lot, it seems, but then perhaps not so much as you’d think. “Edo” was the seat of power in Japan from 1603 until it was renamed “Tokyo” during the Meiji Restoration, heralding a brand new era of modernity following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Logically, there must have been people who went to sleep in Edo and woke up in Tokyo, but most of them didn’t nap for nearly 200 years. The hero of A Boy and his Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Chonmage Purin) didn’t exactly nap either, but he’s fetched up 200 years in the future, which, you have to admit, is very disorientating.

Divorced single mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is late getting her 6-year-old son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) out of the house and on his way to school so she’s less than interested when he suddenly stops in the street to stare at a severe man in samurai dress standing outside a supermarket. Assuming it’s some kind of advertising stunt, Hiroko drags her son away, but the man turns up again later wandering around their apartment block and seemingly very confused. Hiroko tries to help him, but he is extremely rude and intimidating, eventually demanding to be taken back to her apartment almost at sword point. Nevertheless, once everyone has figured out the man, who says his name is Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) and he’s a samurai retainer, is either quite mad or a time traveller, the trio being living together and trying to bridge their very different social values.

Those values have obviously changed a lot, but in many ways not enough. Hiroko has a regular job at an advertising agency but is disrespected by some of her colleagues because she can’t work overtime and has to leave early to make sure someone picks up Tomoya. We learn that the reason she divorced her husband two years ago is that while he pretended to be modern and progressive, he was unwilling to share his portion of the domestic burden and secretly wanted his wife to quit work and look after the house despite superficially encouraging her with her career. Hiroko figured it made no difference if he was around or not, so she left him and took Tomoya with her. Hiroko likes her job, but working also reinforces her individual identity (even if blending into the corporate) aside from that of wife and mother which has all too often been all that a woman is in a rigid and conformist society.

Indeed, when Yasube first arrives he adopts a superior tone and refers to Hiroko only as “woman”, viewing her as necessarily inferior by reason of sex while also reasserting himself as a samurai communicating with someone he assumes to be of the lower orders. Yasube is stunned to learn that Hiroko has a surname – a reminder that those of the lower orders did not (officially) have surnames until the Meiji Restoration. He now thinks she must be very noble, adopts a suitably humble tone, and resigns himself to accepting her hospitality in the absence of other options. He can’t get his head around her family situation or process the various motions towards sexual equality the modern world has produced. To him women manage the house and men protect it from outside. He finds Hiroko’s desire for independence strange and this new world uncivilised.

Nevertheless, he decides to give the Tokyo way a go by stepping briefly beyond himself – in return for room and board, he’ll effectively become Hiroko’s “wife”, managing all the domestic chores while she concentrates on her career. Yasube finds a strange affinity for domesticity, quickly getting to grips with white goods and taking recipe notes from cooking TV (to write them down with ink and a brush using classical Japanese script). Despite never tasting them before, he finds himself a natural baker providing sweet treats for all. However, Hiroko perhaps disappoints herself by accidentally slipping into the role of workaholic salaryman, suddenly embracing the art of overtime and leaving everything at home in the capable hands of Yasube without really considering his feelings even if he never seems to resent it.

Trouble brews when Yasube gets the opportunity to build a career of his own as a pastry chef. Hiroko, true to her word, is encouraging and obviously wants to give him the opportunity to fulfil himself, but the same situation recurs – Yasube becomes obsessed with his professional development leaving little Tomoya brokenhearted and missing his surrogate dad. The problem isn’t so much gender roles as a reluctance to fully commit by agreeing to share domestic responsibilities equally in recognition of equal commitment to a mutual endeavour. Then again, Yasube disappoints – his Edo ethics reassert themselves. he answers Hiroko’s pleas that he spend more time with Tomoya by suggesting she quit her job so he won’t be lonely while his wages can support them as a family. He thinks he’s saying something nice, confirming his loyalty to them as a father figure who will protect and provide, but it’s the wrong the thing to say and only goes to show that his “ancient” way of thinking is sadly not quite archaic enough.

Likewise, his old-fashioned parenting style of fatherly authority advanced with shouts and stares would likely not be approved by most today but it does uncomfortably seem to be accepted by the film, as if Tomoya needs male parental input rather than just benefiting from having a mum who’s less tired and stressed out for having someone to share her life with. He does, however, soften on exposure to Tokyo liberality, willingly embracing modern equalities in realising that there’s nothing wrong with a man supporting a woman and a child in ways other than the financial even if he eventually goes back on it when presented with the opportunity to reassert his male pride as a provider, declaring that domestic matters “no longer concern” him now that he has “other duties”. “Tokyo” still has a ways to go (where doesn’t?), but it’s moving in the right direction even if there are some who are content to be slow in catching up.


Original trailer compilation (no subtitles)