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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2001

When it comes to comedy, it's sync or swim


Rating: * * * * Director: Shinobu Yaguchi Running time: 91 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing

Serious is easy, funny is hard -- this is a bit of wisdom that everyone who makes screen comedies believes, but that programmers of the higher-minded film festivals and those who bestow the more prestigious awards seldom acknowledge. Those zany foreigners who present the Golden Globes may have their quirky Best Comedy prize, but the Hollywood powers that be rarely deign to honor a mere comedy with a Best Picture Oscar.

Satoshi Tsumabuki, Takatoshi Kaneko, Hiroshi Tamaki, Koen Kondo and Akifumi Miura in "Waterboys"

Nonetheless, comedies often get the Hollywood green light for the simple reason that the popular ones produce excellent bang for the buck, especially compared with bloated special effects shows. Here's "American Pie" in your eye, "Pearl Harbor."

In Japan, young directors hungry for recognition as auteurs -- i.e., nearly all of them -- are busy churning out draggy one-scene/one-cut exercises in postadolescent angst or cutesy genre parodies with an MTV edge. Those ambitious to be the Harold Ramis of Japan can be counted on one hand. Among the best is Shinobu Yaguchi, who labored long and successfully on the indie fringe with such films as "Adrenaline Drive" and "Himitsu no Hanazono (My Secret Cache)," before finally hitting the big time with his latest comedy, "Waterboys."

Given a wide release by Toho -- Japan's biggest distributor and exhibitor -- this movie about a boys' synchronized swimming team is the nearest that the local industry has come in years to an unapologetically goofy comedy with a mass audience appeal. (Another recent Toho comedy, Koki Mitani's "Minna no Ie," has loftier, Billy Wilderian pretensions.) It also happens to be a hit, proving that Japanese filmmakers can make Japanese moviegoers roll in the aisles, while fattening their producers' bottom line.

Does this mean that directors of Yaguchi's generation are going to stop making arty films about conflicted twentysomethings and start honing their punch lines? Not likely. Funny is hard -- and hardly ever gets you invited to Cannes.

"Waterboys" adheres to the sports-oriented zero-to-hero formula perfected by executive producer Minoru Masui, whose credits include Masayuki Suo's "Shall We Dance?" and Itsumichi Isomura's "Ganbatte Ikimasshoi." But though the third act is hardly a mystery (the film's trailer gives away the feel-good ending) the film manages to avoid boring predictability. (Silliness, no, predictability, yes.) Masui may be adept at packaging -- "Waterboys" was getting good box-office buzz months before its opening -- but he also allows his directors their individuality.

Suo, for example, is a smoothy who integrates every element of his films -- from gross slapstick to eye-misting pathos -- into a seamless whole. Yaguchi, on the other hand, is still the geeky class clown, who may have mastered technique -- his big finale in "Waterboys" evidences an intense study of Busby Berkeley -- but is irredeemably adolescent in his approach to humor. This sensibility -- 34-going-on-14 -- gives Yaguchi the kind of handle on his gawky teenage protagonists that most directors could only fake. He truly feels their pain -- and embarrassment at their various stupidities.

Not that "Waterboys" is a low comic masterpiece on the order of "Dumb and Dumber" or "There's Something About Mary," but it is funny, rousing and, depending on taste, sexy. Given that Japanese school boys in their throat-clutching collars and greasy-looking black uniforms -- a legacy from 19th-century Prussia -- are not always the most attractive specimens, this last is no mean accomplishment.

It opens with the arrival of a new adviser to a mediocre boys' high school swim team -- the cute, chipper, irresistibly luscious Sakuma-sensei (Kaori Manabe) -- who immediately wins 28 admirers. But infatuation turns to shock when she reveals her secret dream: to start a synchronized swimming team. One admirer, the sweet-but-dorky Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki), is unfazed, however, and becomes the nucleus of a squad that includes rock-god-in-embryo Sato (Hiroshi Tamaki), with his Afro wig; disco-mad Ota (Akifumi Miura), with his red bikini-briefs; math-geek Kanazawa (Koen Kondo), with his Coke-bottle glasses; and swishy Saotome (Takatoshi Kaneko), with his life-long crush on Sato.

This motley crew is hard at training -- or rather flailing -- when Sakuma Sensei breezily announces that she is quitting to have a baby. Disheartened, Suzuki and the other members decide to disband and give the pool over to the basketball team, who want to use it to raise fish (don't ask why). Then, taunted by their classmates for being losers and realizing that they kind of like doing leg kicks in unison, they have a change of heart. But now they have no coach and no place to practice: The pool is already alive with finny invaders, dumped there by a skin-headed dude (Naoto Takenaka) who tells them that if they want to swim there, they will have to catch his fish -- the first of many challenges.

Needless to say, the path to synchro glory is full of twists, some frankly ridiculous. Suzuki acquires a girlfriend (Aya Hirayama) with an angelic face and a vicious karate kick. The skin head, a dolphin trainer by trade, becomes their coach, but puts them to cleaning aquariums instead of practicing. The boys even acquire a supporter: the mama-san (Akira Emoto) of a local transvestite bar, who may know nothing about synchro, but loves a well-filled Speedo.

There is a production number in which the boys strut their stuff -- and pretty amazing stuff it is. OK, you laugh at synchro, even at the Olympic level (or especially at the Olympic level). It is neither sport nor art, you say, but camp: The Rockettes with chlorine. Nothing in "Waterboys" is likely to change your mind -- though it may make you appreciate the athleticism involved in executing all those sweeps and circles while paddling for dear life. Also, training for the film in midsummer burned every ounce of fat off Yaguchi's young actors, while roasting them to a perfect tan. A good argument for getting in the water yourself -- even if you never lift a leg out of it.

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