Alivehoon (アライブフーン, Ten Shimoyama, 2022)

How far can skills learned in simulation be transferred to the “real” world? Ten Shimoyama’s Alivehoon (アライブフーン) sees a top gamer take to the track for real to compete for drift racing glory while battling both his own lack of confidence and that of those around him. What he discovers is that there may not be so much difference as might be assumed, but offline racing is not a solo sport and succeeding means learning to trust in others as well as oneself. 

Koichi’s (Shuhei Nomura) immediate problem is that he doesn’t fit in at his job as a mechanic and is resented by the other employees for failing to pull his weight. All he wants to do is play games and after a lifetime of practice he’s become a champion in the world of e-sports drift racing but secretly harbours the desire to become a “real” race driver. He finally gets the chance to prove himself when his exasperated boss gets him an opportunity to try out for a real team in need of a rookie driver to ensure its survival. Diffident as he is, Koichi agrees and after brief moment of confusion on the track, proves he has what it takes to take his virtual skills to the real world as an aspiring drift racer. 

The main opposition Koichi faces is from those who dismiss him on the grounds that in-game experience is useless in the real world, which in some cases it may be but luckily Koichi does at least know how to drive and after a moment to play things through knows how to translate his skills from the online world to a real life track which of course has much more proximity to mortal danger than he has ever experienced before. That might be one reason that veteran driver Muto (Takanori Jinnai) who retired after a catastrophic crash in the opening sequence does not take him very seriously on witnessing him being physically sick after being driven round the course by a champion racer while his daughter Natsumi (Ai Yoshikawa) is very invested in the idea that it might be possible to turn an e-sports champ into a top rank driver and save the team in the process. 

Team Alive is positioned as the nice guy underdog, trying to win through hard work and fairness in contrast to arrogant hotshot Shibasaki (Shodai Fukuyama) who turns down the chance to join Alive to go with a more lucrative offer from a haughty middle-aged woman (Anna Tsuchiya) who plays only to win. Shibasaki drives dirty with the racing equivalent of kicking dust in Koichi’s eyes but eventually pays a heavy price for his lack of sportsmanship only to be humbled and come to see the merit in the honest and down to earth approach of team Alive. Koichi meanwhile fights an internal battle trying to rediscover a sense of confidence while beginning to find it in the mutual support of his teammates acknowledging that he may be in the driving seat but he’s not alone and the victory does not belong entirely to him. 

The film’s race scenes are supervised by “drift king” Keiichi Tsuchiya and feature real life drivers such as Naoki Nakamura, Daigo Saito and Masato Kawabata driving real courses for added authenticity all shot in camera without the use of CGI or special effects. The neon blue/red lighting and synth score contribute to the retro aesthetic but it has to be said that Koichi seems to take to real life drift racing a little too easily and experiences surprisingly few setbacks before making a fairly perplexing decision in the film’s final moments despite having discovered the value of teamwork along with a new family in team Alive who each value him for who he is as he brings the best in virtual racing to the real world game. Natsumi too earns the respect of her father as he comes to trust and believe in Koichi but is never quite given the chance to prove herself in her own right. In any case there is something heartwarming in the film’s conviction that there are no pointless skills and that working hard to become good at something is its own reward whether you become a champion or not.


Alivehoon screens in Chicago on Sept. 17 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

JK Rock (JK☆ROCK, Shunji Muguruma, 2019)

JK Rock poster 1The heyday of the idol movie may have passed with the Showa era, but the genre proves itself alive and kicking with the infinitely charming JK Rock (JK☆ROCK). Starring the members of Drop Doll – a band formed by the three actresses from director Shunji Muguruma’s previous short Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds, JK Rock is a spunky coming of age tale in which three lost high school girls end up starting band at the behest of a strange old man (Masahiko Nishimura) who owns a rock and roll bar in bohemian Kichijoji and secretly wants to coax reluctant rocker Joe (Shodai Fukuyama) back to the stage.

Joe was once in a promising band, JoKers – a combination of his own name and that of his best friend and bandmate whose initials are also JK. A year earlier, however, he appears to have got cold feet and left music behind him for good in order to concentrate on a law degree. He still has his adoring fans though, these days he’s known as the “purple prince” because he drives round campus in an ostentatious purple Lamborghini. A fateful meet cute brings him into contact with feisty high school girl Sakura (Chihiro Hayama) when she decides to take a middle-aged man to task for queue jumping in a convenience store only for Joe to calmly point out that she’s now the one holding everyone up. Somewhat grateful for Joe’s life lesson, Sakura is non-plussed when he calls her a weirdo as he leaves. It’s no surprise to discover that Sakura is a regular at Teru’s Rock ’n Roll Cafe where Joe used to play and so fate is set in motion.

The film’s name, “JK Rock” is a witty multilayered pun in that it refers both to the multiple “JKs” and to the more obvious “Joshi Kosei” which means “high school girls”. Sakura is joined by two more frequenters of Teru’s – waitress and track star Mao (Yuina) who takes up the guitar, and fabulously wealthy Rina (Yukino Miyake) who practices bass in secret so her ultra ambitious mother won’t stop her doing what she loves. In true idol movie fashion, everyone seems to be fairly well off in an aspirational sense but each has their own problems which run from an inappropriate crush on a supportive teacher to overbearing parents keen to stamp their own view of success on their kids in order to stop them making their own mistakes.

Meanwhile, Joe is battling the usual early life crises as he weighs up following his dreams against the safety of conventionality. “You can’t fire up my rock spirit and then run away!” Sakura angrily tells him in a line that seems oddly filled with subtext, but running away does seem to be Joe’s problem. He didn’t go with his friend to America, and the other Joe is now big international star. Snapped at by the band’s manager that he had no guts and no love for rock, Joe decided he was unworthy for the stage and had no right to play, forcing himself into a dull but conventionally successful life as a lawyer. Consequently, he is a grumpy, empty shell of a man driving round in a stupidly big and colourful car with a superficial girlfriend who assumes she’ll soon be getting married to an independently wealthy professional grade husband. Through jamming with Sakura he begins to rediscover some of his rock spirit and get his mojo back to realise he’s free to play with whoever he wants on his own terms.

A musical coming of age tale, JK Rock does its best to showcase the musical talents of Drop Doll which appear to be vast. JoKers plays only a minor role in brief flashbacks of what might have been (and perhaps could be again) for the dejected Joe while the girlband studies intently under his, originally reluctant, tutorship to become fine musicians in their own right. Of course, when it comes down it, it’s not just music but youthful solidarity and the true power of friendship which eventually show the way as old wounds are repaired and new bonds formed between the variously troubled youngsters who eventually realise that they’re figuring things out and will probably be OK. A charming, sprightly youth movie filled with true punk spirit and genuine warmth, JK Rock is an improbable delight and sure to make stars of its three leading ladies.


JK Rock was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Short version of the music video for the movie’s theme song – Secret Voice