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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004

Blow your horns, little girls blue

Swing Girls

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Producer Shoji Masui and his company Altamira Pictures have an unusual specialty: making zero-to-hero films about nonmainstream sports, targeted at mainstream audiences. Masui's first hit in this genre was "Sumo Funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't)," a 1992 Masayuki Suo comedy about a hapless college sumo team.

News photo
Yuika Motokariya, Juri Ueno, Yuta Hiraoka and Shihori Kanjiya in "Swing Girls"

This was followed by "Shall We Dance?," again directed by Suo, a 1995 romantic comedy about a shy salaryman who becomes fascinated with competitive ballroom dancing -- and his dancing instructor. Released in the United States, it set a box-office record for a nonanimated Japanese film.

Masui next produced "Ganbatte Ikimashoi (Give It All)," Itsumichi Isomura's 1998 drama about a high school girls' rowing team that launched the fabulous career of Rena Tanaka, she of the magnificently arching eyebrows.

In 2002, Masui, together with super-producer Chihiro Kameyama of Fuji TV, had his biggest success of all with "Waterboys," the Shinobu Yaguchi comedy about a boys' synchronized swimming team that later morphed into a popular Fuji TV series.

With the names Masui, Kameyama and Yaguchi attached to "Swing Girls," a comedy about a girls' swing band, distributor Toho quite naturally expected a hit -- and now it has one that is attracting everyone from kids to geezers.

Even more amazing than their box-office numbers is that Altamira films, "Swing Girls" included, have a painstakingly handcrafted feel that belies their formulaic story arcs -- and goes against the grind-it-out grain of the Japanese film industry. In this respect, Masui and his collaborators are like that other band of wildly successful perfectionists: Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animators.

The "Swing Girls" story has its genesis in a real-life high school jazz band in Hyogo Prefecture that Yaguchi discovered. He visited, liked what he saw and started gathering material on similar ensembles. The film's story, however, is a fiction, set in today's Yamagata Prefecture -- Japan's nearest equivalent to Arkansas.

There we meet a class of girls, 16 altogether, who have been sentenced to a make-up math class for the summer vacation. Tomoko (Juri Ueno) -- bored out of her mind with the droning of the teacher (Naoto Takenaka) -- volunteers for the job of taking bento (box lunches) to the members of the school brass band, who are on their way to a critical baseball game with a prefectural rival. Her classmates, including the boy-crazy Yoshie (Shihori Kanjiya), the terminally shy Sekiguchi (Yuika Motokariya) and the beefy, phlegmatic Naomi (Yukari Toyashima), immediately offer to help. Class dismissed!

Enough to say that the girls get careless, the band members get sick -- and replacements are needed. The band's only survivor, the dorky-but-cute Takuo (Yuta Hiraoka), recruits three: Sekiguchi, who can toot a recorder, barely, and two guitarists from a recently dissolved punk band. Then Tomoko has a brain wave -- if they all join, they will get out of class permanently. Takuo is suddenly teaching 16 new musicians -- none of whom know diddly about the swing band jazz he proposes they play.

From here things get twisty, with reversals of fortune, narrow scrapes and funny but touching triumphs over adversity. The less committed fall away, until only a band of hardy, jazz-loving survivors, led by Tomoko, is left. Much of this is similar to "Waterboys" and other Altamira films. But Yaguchi, who also wrote the script, takes standard plot changes in fresh directions that may verge on the bizarre but are never dull.

Example one: The girls have to raise money for instruments (never mind why they can't use the school's). A group arubaito at a supermarket ends badly and all seems lost when Sekiguchi -- whose existence they have barely acknowledged -- suggests they harvest matsutake mushrooms at a nearby mountain. There they encounter a wild boar -- and a chase ensues, with the girls and Takuo as the prey. The usual Japanese director would film this scene as slapstick, with everyone running helter-skelter and mugging away. Yaguchi shoots it as a series of frozen poses, like so many exhibits in a diorama. This bit of visual jujitsu not only upsets expectations, but happens to be laugh-till-you-gag funny.

The entire film, in fact, is in the same contrarian vein. Meaning that, instead of celebrating the niceness and all-around genki-ness of his heroines (think of a feature-length Morning Musume show), Yaguchi films them behaving as real teenage girls do when no one is looking. They turn out to be likable sorts, with plenty of spunk, but none of the cutesy posing and puffy-cheeked pouts considered de rigueur for idoru eiga (idol film) heroines.

Moreover, "Swing Girls" is an excellent primer on how to play and listen to jazz. The girls not only start from zero, from breathing exercises and morning jogs to build their wind, but learn as they go, more from the streets than the classroom. Even that ubiquitous street-crossing tune, "Kokyo no Sora," becomes an object lesson in jazz rhythm. When they finally play it in front of a crowd -- and make it swing -- we know exactly how they did it and feel the excitement of their breakthrough.

All the actors, including the many who were total beginners at the start of filming, play their own instruments, right through to the big battle-of-the-bands finale. This violates another movie musical convention: of dubbing in professional musicians for amateur stars to spare audience ears. But though they may be no match for the originals, the girls bring an energy and passion to their playing that is infectious -- and made me want to run out and sign up for lessons at Yamaha (whose schools are prominently plugged in the film).

Louis Armstrong once said, "If you gotta ask what jazz is, don't mess with it." "Swing Girls" doesn't ask -- it shows, in Yamagata dialect no less. Altamira gets it right again.

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