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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Haiku finds its mojo in youth movie

Koi wa Go Shichi Go!

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

Movies about losers who become winners through a combination of grit, talent, luck and love are common enough everywhere, though nowhere more so than Hollywood. From Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman" to Jennifer Lopez in "Maid In Manhattan," it's the American Dream on screen.

News photo
From left: Tetta Sugimoto, Takahito Hosoyamada, Megumi Seki, Ryo Hashizume, Kinako Kobayashi and Akane Hasunuma in "Koi wa Go Shichi Go!"

The Japanese have come up with a twist on this ancient formula: The losers win at something considered dasai (uncool). Masayuki Suo was the pioneer, starting with 1989's "Fancy Dance" (hero takes up zazen), and continuing with 1992's "Sumo Funjatta" (sumo) and 1996's "Shall We Dance?" (ballroom dancing) -- the last remade, perhaps by no coincidence, with Gere and Lopez in the starring roles.

The latest in this line is "Koi wa Go Shichi Go (Love is Five, Seven, Five)," Naoko Ogigami's film about high-school outsiders who take part in "Haiku Koshien" -- a team haiku competition named after the Koshien baseball tournament. Held each August, it's evidently conducted much as it is in the film, with competitors critiquing each other's poems and a panel of judges choosing a winner by raising flags.

This, to outlanders, may seem bizarre. Americans are also big on haiku -- knocking off poems by that name (if not always in the traditional form) has long been a rite of passage for U.S. school kids -- but most American teens would probably balk at reciting self-composed haiku as a sort of sport. What could be lamer? Limerick contests?

The Japanese take haiku more seriously, but as "Koi wa Go Shichi Go" shows us in its opening scenes, the high-school haiku club is now considered the lamest of all, beneath even that perpetual repository for the unathletic and uncool -- the English club. The task that Ogigami has set herself is to raise one school's club to the level of cool.

In the process she has produced an old-fashioned seishun eiga (youth movie), but without the old-fashioned sentimentality about the purity, innocence and general splendidness of youth. The downsides, including teenage jerkishness, are also on display.

Also, she does not go in the opposite, now overly familiar, direction of making her outsider types part-time hookers, apprentice gangsters or other parental nightmares. Instead, in the course of the film, she reveals them in all their quirky, but essentially normal, humanity. She uses the techniques of caricature to deepen and intensify her portraits, not cheapen or degrade them.

The first is that of Haruko Takayama (Megumi Seki), a leggy, sharp-eyed beauty who has grown up abroad and is now stuck, against her will, in a provincial high school, whose ways strike her as absurd. Why does she have to stuff her head with kanji now that she can find them with a few keystrokes?

One day she discovers a chubby classmate, Mako (Kinako Kobayashi), being abused by a nasty boy and sends him flying. This act of heroism is witnessed by P-chan (Akane Hasu- numa), a ukelele-strumming pixie, who is immediately smitten -- and attaches herself to Haruko like a leech.

But Mako, who has also been kicked off the cheerleading squad, remained unconsoled. She is about to throw herself off the school roof when Tsuchiyama (Takahito Hosoyamada), a handsome photography buff hanging out there, coolly asks her to recite her suicide poem. She complies ("In the next world/I want to be born/as a better me.") and he praises it without sarcasm. She accordingly becomes smitten with him, but he is madly, secretly in love with Haruko -- and has dozens of candid snaps to prove it.

Over the upcoming summer break, the school haiku club is supposed to prepare for the Haiku Koshien, but it has only one regular member: the over-wound, burr-headed Yamagishi (Ryo Hashizume), who also rides the bench of the school baseball team. The milquetoasty teacher who advises the club, Masuo Sensei (Tetta Sugimoto), is thus surprised to see Haruko, Mako, P-chan and Tsuchiyama all present at the first meeting.

Haruko was drafted by her Japanese teacher -- and the rest followed. None, save Yamagishi, have any interest in haiku. And he knows the rules, but not the rhythm. The situation looks hopeless -- but Masuo turns out to be a good teacher. Instead of belaboring formulas, he takes his charges out in the natural world, where they can see haiku in action, with their own eyes. Also, the kids turn out to have that essential requirement for poetry -- passion, though at first more for each other than for haiku.

Still, it's not obvious how the team can win even the moral victory -- de rigueur for films of this sort. Especially when they encounter the winners of last year's Haiku Koshien, guys wearing identical geek glasses, geek haircuts and rattling off their kanji-laden poems with contemptuous geek precision. Our heroes are not just beaten in a "friendly" contest, but pounded and crushed, reduced to silence and tears.

But when they face the geeks again, at Haiku Koshien, we not only know that the result will not be the same, but, poem by poem, exactly how and why. Shinobu Yaguchi's 2004 hit "Swing Girls" did something similar with girls and jazz, but in a big, splashy, faintly incredible finale. Ogigami's film is more precise and convincing. Haiku, Yamagishi tells us over and over, is pop. It is also, as "Koi wa Go Shichi Go!," shows us, cool. But who ever doubted it?

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