“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)