#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)

Assassination Classroom (映画 暗殺教室, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

photo_4First Published on UK Anime Network in November 2015.


You might make the mistake of thinking that the E in class 3E just means it’s the 5th 3rd year class, or that it stands for “elite” and contains some of the top students in the school. You’d be wrong, “E” stands for “end” because these are the no hoper kids that everyone’s already written off as having no future. However, it’s precisely these kids that a mysterious extraterrestrial being insists on becoming the teacher of in return for not destroying the Earth (just yet). Nicknamed UT (unkillable teacher), the giant yellow octopus-like creature has already destroyed 30% of the moon just for kicks and has now set the challenge that if the boys and girls of class 3E fail to assassinate him before graduation he’ll destroy the Earth too.

The ironic thing is, UT is the best teacher they’ve ever had, but to pass the course (and save the world) they have to kill him. The high schoolers are also under the tutelage of a self defence forces officer for their military training and a sexy assassin who randomly ends up becoming their English teacher (and giving them one of the least appropriate English lessons ever recorded on film). Every morning they bow and then pull out their various kinds of firearms as UT takes the register whilst flitting about dodging bullets. Despite wanting to destroy the Earth, UT is 100% committed to training his students both in the arts of assassination and in the more regular subjects. Because of his super speed and ability to be in several places at once he has time for everybody and is quick to work out each of his charge’s specific weaknesses and help them work on those to become better people as well as ace students.

Still, the students are supposed to kill their teacher and there’s a little bit of sadness creeping in as they inevitably grow closer to UT and his quirky antics. Up ’til now everyone has given up on them and now they’re supposed to kill the one person who’s actually trying to help. Of course, even while this surreal situation is going on these are just regular high school kids undergoing regular high school stuff like wanting to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms or having a crush on someone who hasn’t even noticed you. Despite the impending end of the world, the kids of Class 3E are just enjoying their time trying to work out ever more complex ways of trying assassinate their seemingly invincible teacher.

UT himself is strangely adorable with his giant yellow smiley face style head and bizarre little laugh. He also changes color according to his mood and has a tendency to go off on tangents with one notable example which turns into a long form ‘80s style melodrama about abandoned single mothers before being politely shut down by the bored students. Assassination Classroom is undoubtedly bizarre, surreal and full of absurd humour but all the better for it. It’s just very silly but has an undeniably clever and very witty script that proves near impossible to resist.

To put it mildly, Assassination Classroom is just heaps of zany, crazy fun. It also manages to be genuinely heartfelt as we come to care for this rag-tag bunch of no hopers but also for UT himself as we start to hope the kids will somehow fail and succeed at the same time so we can save both the world and UT. The film drops us a few hints about UT’s backstory but stops short of offering a full explanation for the crazy goings on. Thankfully a sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation Day is already in production and even if it doesn’t offer any answers, Assassination Classroom is already one of the most enjoyably absurd offerings to come out of Japan this year.


Assassination Classroom receives its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival on 15th November 2015.

Look out for a review of Tag which is also playing at the festival as it Happy Hour, and Our Little Sister.