Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer:

Dolls (ドールズ, Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

dolls posterOutside of Japan where he is still primarily thought of as a TV comedian and celebrity figure, Takeshi Kitano is most closely associated with his often melancholy yet insistently violent existential gangster tales. His filmography, however, is one of the most diverse of all the Japanese “auteurs” and encompasses not only the aforementioned theatre of violence but also pure comedy and even coming of age drama. Dolls is not quite the anomaly that it might at first seem but perhaps few would have expected Kitano to direct such a beautifully colourful film inspired by one of Japan’s most traditional, if most obscure, art forms – bunraku puppet theatre.

After opening with a bunraku performance featuring an excerpt from the Chikamatsu play Courier For Hell, Kitano moves on to his overarching narrative which connects the tripartite structure in a tale inspired by the classic story The Bound Beggars. This first pair of lovers, Sawako and Matsumoto, wander blankly through the ever changing landscape tied together with a long red rope. The two had previously been a young couple, very much in love, but Matsumoto was pressured into abandoning Sawako to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state.

The second pair of doomed romantics consists of an ageing yakuza who looks back on his life which has forced him to act in a way that he is not always proud of and now finds himself remembering the girlfriend he parted with thirty years ago after fearing he was about to lose his job. She promised to wait for him, he promised to return a fine man but he became a yakuza and never saw her again. All these years later, she’s still exactly where she said she’d be, waiting.

Story three is strange tale of modern love as a young man becomes obsessed with an idol star who only ever notices his rival. After she is injured in a car accident and decides to retire, the young man takes drastic action to be able to meet with her on what he sees as a more equal footing.

Fools for love, each and every one of them. Love has ruined them, removed rational choice from their field of vision, yet there’s something noble and beautiful in the way in which it has penetrated each of their lives. They love as if possessed by an incurable madness, Sawako tries to kill herself because her heart is broken, a woman grows old spending each Saturday lunch time sitting on a bench with a second lunch box which is going to go to waste, and a young man maims himself to finally get his love’s attention. Was it worth it, in the end? Perhaps not if the desperately sad outcomes of each of these stories is anything to go by.

Kitano rejects his idiosyncratic blue colour palate for a world of vibrant colours. Travelling through a year we move along the seasons as punctuated by their symbolic scenery from cherry blossoms to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves and finally the purity of the winter snow. We travel one way, but also in circles as we navigate the story of love as it too changes with its seasons yet remains unchanged in essence. Each of the lovers is no more free than a bunraku puppet, manipulated by forces outside of their control and forced into a desperate unhappiness that is in part vindicated by their romantic bonds.

Love is tender, love is cruel. Each of the men, in particular, makes terrible choices which cause only pain to the women they supposedly love and, in their pride and arrogance, they fail to realise the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. The tragic inevitability of life’s suffering and the inability to escape it are the foundation stones of Chikamatsu’s world.

Working with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto Kitano has created a beautiful, theatrical world of hyper realistic colour and life. Like much of Kitano’s work, Dolls amounts to a sad collection of tales coloured by melancholy and a resignation to the pain and suffering inherent in being alive. The lovers are inexorably bound to each other for all eternity because of the suffering they have each endured at the other’s hand. This is a sad world, but it’s a beautiful one too and even if hurts one must try to live.


Dolls is re-released in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window films.

(This is an original release trailer and does not reflect the quality upgrade of Third Window Films’ blu-ray release)

I first saw this film I guess almost fifteen years ago (!) and I still occassionally get this song stuck in my head:

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (ドールズ) – first published by UK Anime Network.