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Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Lost in another teenage wasteland

Aoi Haru

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Running time: 83 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

I used to think that Japanese kids were docile types, until I taught English at a boys' high school. Confronted with 40 students, most of whom were thoroughly bored and looking to have a bit of fun with the gaijin sensei, I had panic visions of total chaos. While I dutifully plowed through the assigned text with a hapless boy who could barely put two words of eigo together, the low rumble of chit-chat would build to a roar, punctuated by giggles, whoops, slaps, tickles, flying missiles and, inevitably, the sound of a kid falling off his chair.

News photo
(From left) Yuta Yamazaki, Hirofumi Arai, Yusuke Oshiba, Ryuhei Matsuda and Sosuke Takaoka in "Aoi Haru"

I quickly switched to the same start-from-zero, get-everyone-talking approach as in my other English conversation classes, and that way I managed to survive -- but the sweaty fear of losing control never quite left me.

Nearly two decades later, at the high school in Toshiaki Toyoda's "Aoi Haru (Blue Spring)" the age-old struggle between students and teachers is already over, with the latter retreating in ignominious defeat. Droning through their lessons like drugged robots, the teachers ignore the anarchy in the seats. A few students go through the motions of studying, but most sleep, eat, talk, doodle or wander through the graffiti-scarred halls, trying to find ways to kill time -- and each other.

How accurate is this portrayal? First, the film is based on a blackly humorous manga by Taiyou Matsumoto that appears in "Big Comic Spirits." Second, in a program interview Toyoda admits the film is not a documentary. "I wanted to inject a bit of magic into it," he says. Part of that magic was making the outside world disappear; the film's adolescent heroes rarely leave the school grounds, while parents are conspicuous by their absence and other adults, including the wimpy teachers, make only fleeting appearances. The one exception is Mr. Hanada, a teacher played by midget magician Mame Yamada, who tends the school garden, utters gnomic pearls of wisdom -- and saves his best trick for last.

Like Toyoda's 1999 gang film "Pornostar" and his 2001 boxing documentary "Unchain," "Aoi Haru" seeks the truth in, not realism (even "Unchain" fiddled with the facts) but an exploration of extremes -- particularly extremes of violence.

The students in his Worst Case High School, however, are so emotionally deadened that even their violent acts lack charge. Stranded in a moral wasteland, where values have collapsed and the future has lost meaning, they have nothing left to rebel against but the absurdity of life itself. Thus the film's air of ennui, its feeling of unfolding in a timeless, sexless void.

"Aoi Haru" seems to have been made for -- and by -- jaded 16-year-old boys whose existence centers on the schoolyard, though they can't imagine it extending beyond graduation. There's a romanticism to its world view -- high school as a battleground for the coolest of the cool dudes -- but there's a shallowness and immaturity as well. It's a guy thing, I suppose -- if the guys in question think death-defying dares are the ultimate high.

The guys in "Aoi Haru" are a clique of eight third-year students at a boys' high school that is at the bottom of the educational barrel. To pick their banto (leader), they play an annual "clapping game." Climbing to the highest roof of the school and stepping outside the railing that runs around its edge, they grab it, let go, clap once and grab again. The second time, they let go and clap twice. The third time, three claps and so on. The one who can go the most rounds, without falling to the concrete several floors below, is the winner.

This year, the banto is the angelic-looking Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda), who goes a record eight rounds. His best friend, the bright-eyed, tousle-haired Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), is pumped by this win; together they can rule the school! Kujo, however, just wants to kick a soccer ball and chill out. "This is paradise," he says, by which he means he can do as he pleases without being bothered by anyone.

His ostensible followers thus have to work out their destinies for themselves. Baseball team stalwart Kimura (Yusuke Oshiba), whose boyhood dream of playing at Koshien has ended in defeat, jumps the school fence one day and joins the yakuza. Yukio (Sosuke Takaoka), who tells a bemused teacher that he wants to work for "world peace," just like Ultraman, silences a motor-mouthed classmate by running him through with a butcher's knife. He quietly enjoys a smoke as blood puddles on the floor.

Then Aoki, whose loyalty to Kujo has been rewarded by bland indifference, shaves off his eyebrows and all his hair except for a black mop on top. Along with the new hairstyle comes a new attitude: tough, cold, murderous. Together with a pair of flame-haired underlings, he starts a new reign of terror over students and teachers alike. His ultimate target, however, is Kujo.

Though the four leads go their separate ways, they raise flowers together under the watchful eye of the diminutive (and appropriately named) Mr. Hanada. Kimura and Yukio's flowers fail to bloom. There is still hope, however, for Aoki's and Kujo's.

If all this sounds thuddingly obvious -- it is. Even the flowers of hope, however, wouldn't irritate as much if the gardeners were more than manga-esque caricatures. Arai generates heat as Aoki -- the only one of the group who is not a burnt-out case -- but he sizzles in a vacuum. As Kujo, Matsuda is barely in the movie.

In Nagisa Oshima's "Gohatto," playing the young samurai who arouses the desires of his older colleagues, Matsuda was at least credible as a love object. In this film, with all sexual vibrations, homosexual or otherwise, firmly suppressed, he simply looks out of place -- a gorgeous, self-confident boy whose future looks assured, even though he has no idea what it is.

But as listless as "Aoi Haru" may be as a movie, it represents something of a culmination of the seishun eiga ("youth movie") genre. After this downer, with its message of generational doom, Japanese films about teens, troubled or not, have nowhere to go but up.

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