Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Oppai Volleyball (2009)

5 Junior High School boys share the same dream. Of touching, or even seeing a pair of breasts. When a new young female teacher, Mikako Terashima, is put in charge of their volleyball team they make her a deal: If they win a game in the upcoming tournament she will show them her breasts. The only problem is that they’re hopeless at volleyball,  having never played or even trained before. But with this fantastic reward ahead of them the boys suddenly find a renewed will to train hard and persevere. The film also looks at the life of their teacher and her reasons for moving to a new school and her passion for education.

The film works well as a light high-school comedy. Plenty of jokes and a good summer soundtrack. Mikako’s story is intended to add a sense of drama to the story with her contemplations on her career. This does add an element of gravitas to the largely frivolous story, but at times seems an unusual contrast. The film captures the youthful spirit and the jokes are funny, albeit mostly on the same theme. The acting is also solid from Ayase Haruka, as the overwhelmed teacher, and the boys, who deliver their lines with real zeal.

Oppai Volleyball (or Boob Volleyball) great feel-good summer sports film with an unusual MacGuffin (or pair of MacGuffins) providing a look at the humorous side of adolescence and education. Teaching us, in a roundabout way, that working hard for a goal you believe in is a noble thing.

Based on a novel by Mizuno Munenori.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

Mondai no nai Watashitachi (2004)


The film revolves around Miyo, the leader of a group of bullies, who are picking on another girl Maria. When a new girl Mika joins the class and becomes the new class leader and targets Miyo, Miyo realises the error of her ways and attempts to stop the cycle of bullying. Having solved bullying once and for al at their schooll, Miyo is presented with another dilemma. After catching her teacher stealing from a convenience store she becomes targeted by her own class teacher.

This film is one of the worst I have ever seen. Ridiculous story and amateurish direction mean there is almost no tension throughout. The conflict established in the opening scenes is solved by the halfway point meaning the film feels like two short stories welded together. The solution to their problems can be worked out by the audience a long time before the characters realise the best course of action. Add to this the increasingly unbelievable scenarios, glaring plot holes and illogical actions and reactions and you have this disaster of a film. The acting is as patchy as the story and adds to the feeling of watching a poorly scripted television drama.

This could have been good as the problem of bullying is a serious one, but the film underplays the severity of it to such a degree you feel no sympathy for characters and little understanding of the problem beyond clichéd back stories. The only reason you might watch this film is to see how not to write a compelling drama. The moral is that bullying is bad, something which doesn’t require a film to propound and heavy-handed, inept storytelling such as this does nothing to warrant it’s tackling such a subject.

Based on the novel by Maki Ushida.

Swing Girls (2004)

A remedial maths class tries to get out of studying over the summer vacation by offering to take lunch to the brass band (who are playing at a school baseball game). The girls manage to hospitalise the entire band (with the lunch) and are then forced to replace them. When the band recovers, some of the girls still want to play and decide to start a rival jazz group. The plot is very formulaic, with a few sub-plots and side-stories to fill out the running time. Basically, the hopeless girls must come together to beat the odds and take on the other bands in a competition at the end of the movie.

While the story is very simple and there are few surprises, there are some good jokes spread throughout and genuinely amusing situations. The main problem I had with the movie was with the writing, as some of the dialogue seemed forced and the girls’ speech sounds unnatural. The second problem is that the leads are not presented sympathetically from the beginning and you have to do a lot of work to figure out why you should be rooting for them. A few of the jokes do fall flat for these reasons, and others are so predictable that they provoke little laughter. That said there are a lot of positives; the direction is good and the girls jazz performances are fantastic.

The film works as a feel-good comedy, albeit overly similar to other films in the genre, such as “Waterboys” (by the same director) or “Oppai Volleyball”. A celebration of hard-work and enthusiasm, and the power of music to inspire a lazy, ill-disciplined generation. Probably one of the better examples of the genre, but it occasionally feels almost too cynically put together, lacking a real emotional core.