Mukoku (2017)

Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a young man battling several demons. His father, strict to the point of psychologically abusive, trained him in the art of kendo. After an incident in which Kengo struck him across the head with a bokuto, his father is now comatose and Kengo feels the guilt of his actions, knowing that he has as good as killed his own father. He has retreated into the bottle, given up kendo, and now works as a security guard. His days consist of routine punctuated by heavy drinking, a far cry from the young focussed athlete he once was. Tooru (Nijiro Murakami) is a teenager who likewise seems frustrated and alienated from the world. His passion is rap and specifically writing lyrics which help him express his pent up rage and emotions. After a run-in with a group of kendo players, he is dragged along to their training session. Showing himself to be full of aggression, though untrained, the tutor takes an interest in him. The teacher is also trying to bring Kengo round from his stupor and arranges for the two men to cross paths. This fateful meeting puts both on a collision course, with Tooru now dedicated to the sport that Kengo is attempting to run from.

From the opening scenes of the film it is clear that this is something special. We see a young Kengo and his father training, while the mother calls them for dinner. The transition to the inciting incident of Kengo injuring his father is perfect in putting the audience off-guard. It is not immediately clear what has happened, as the early scenes could be straight from a samurai film, suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a university student. This perfectly captures one of the film’s themes as we see the ancient traditions coming right down to the present. This confusion also puts us in a similar position to Kengo himself as he is unable to fully come to terms or understand what happened, whether it was an accident or purposeful attack. Throughout he is haunted by visions and recriminations of that event, and it is not at first clear exactly what happened. Likewise, the way the film shows Tooru’s sense of isolation with an opening shot with him out of frame and imagery of an underwater crowd at his concert, shows the skill and confidence of the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri to tell this story in an interesting visual way. The script is written by Ryo Takada, based on the book by Shu Fujisawa. Both Go Ayano and Nijiro Murakami give exceptional performances. The director is not afraid of long takes and even in lengthy scenes both are entirely believable in their roles. The supporting cast, most notably Akira Emoto as the kendo instructor help to bring this world to life. There is a small part for Atsuko Maeda as Kengo’s girlfriend. The story is well paced and the occasional flashbacks and lapses into Kengo’s traumatic recollections keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen. It is not a typical sports story, though there are occasional training montages, but everything is tied more particularly into the psychology of Kengo, and to a lesser extend Tooru. The cinematography is beautiful, including some standout moments, such as the fight in the rain.

Mukoku is nominally a sports story, with a great insight into the art of kendo and scenes of practice and combat. This only acts as a support for the emotional drama of the main characters. It would not have worked with another sport. The traditionalism and values of kendo are of special significance in this story. In an early scene we see a giant statue of Kannon, a buddhist deity, on a hillside behind Kengo as he shares a beer with a homeless drunk. Themes of religion and tradition become more apparent as the film goes along. The film stresses the importance of having a strong moral code and more importantly something to focus on to prevent becoming wayward. The will to survive in the battle-practice of kendo can be seen as a basis for a healthy life and averting a descent into melancholy and despair. It is clear that Kengo is directionless, drifting through a life of alcohol and regret, with his former master attempting to set him back on the right path. Tooru is by contrast inspired by the strict training regime and dedication required for Kendo. The philosophy of kendo plays a central role in the story, with many of the lessons of this art becoming guiding principles for the characters. The ideas of sin and righteousness, displayed by Kengo’s straying from the path and Tooru’s adherence to it, is characterised well. A highly entertaining film dealing with several issues and coming at them from a peculiarly Japanese angle. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in kendo, its practice and philosophy.

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.

Ping Pong (2002)

Ping Pong tells the story of two friends and their struggles to succeed at ping pong in inter-school championships. The child-like “Peco” Hoshino and his ever serious friend Tsukimoto (nicknamed “Smile” as he rarely smiles) have been friends for a long time. They are the top two player in the Katase High ping pong club and unassailable until a new chinese player arrives and solidly beats Hoshino in a friendly match, and Hoshino is then beaten by Sakuma, a student from rival Kaio school. Hoshino, at first so distressed he gives up training, then decides to stage a comeback at the next tournament. Meanwhile, his friend “Smile” who only plays to kill time and often lets people win despite his superiority also decides to try hard at the competition.

The film is well paced with plenty of character driven jokes. At first Hoshino is a little annoying as his character, incredibly over-the-top immaturity, but this mellows somewhat later in the film. Although the story is pretty basic, the cast of the two leads, their rivals and their trainers, all with very distinct personalities and styles make the film enjoyable. It’s also very well shot, utilising camera angles and shots to liven up the story, and only occasionally straying into manga-esque CG trickery.

The movie revolves around the philosophies of ping pong, the determination needed to win and the fierce rivalries. Although it’s a comedy, the parts which are meant to be serious are done well enough to evoke the desired emotions. In the end it’s a story of friendship and striving for something that you believe in, made interesting by superb directing and acting. One of the better Japanese sports films.

Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Waterboys (2001)

Suzuki, the sole member of his high-school swimming team, is joined by many more when a new young teacher joins as coach. When she decides to form a synchronised swimming team she whittles these recruits down to an awkward group of five who are willing to carry on her dream, even when she leaves to have a baby. As the boys train they gain in confidence and ability as the move towards the end of term event where they will perform.

The film moves at a quick fire pace and continually wrong-foots the audience with minor plot twists and unexpected jokes. The acting and camaraderie of the leads is heart-warming as this odd quintet pursue their unusual dream. A fantastic feel good summer film which, despite a tenuous  premise, fills the running time admirably with plenty of laughs. The direction is similarly beautiful and the synchronised swimming is surprisingly good when it does happen.

A film about friendship and the sense of achievement which comes of seeing something through to the end despite people’s raised eyebrows the film is a triumphant celebration of that end-of-high-school feeling. Definitely a recommended watch if you want a solid summer comedy.