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Friday, May 26, 2006

'Musicals' make mark despite some bad notes

Check it Out, yo!

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Rieko Miyamoto
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Aoi Uta -- Nodo Jiman Seishunhen

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Satoshi Kaneda
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The Japanese film industry rarely makes what Hollywood or Broadway would consider a musical. Instead, it has developed a homegrown variation in which music is a central element, even though the characters may not sing or play a note for long stretches.

News photo
From left: Tasuku Emoto, Mao Inoue, Hayato Ichihara, Yuta Hiraoka in "Check it Out, yo!" (c) FUJI TELEVISION/TOHO/S.D.P.

Since the success of "Swing Girls," the 2004 Shinobu Yaguchi film about a girls' swing band in a rural high school, musical films have been released for everyone from teens to Baby Boomers nostalgic for the pop music of their youth.

"Check it Out, yo!)," the latest film by uber-producer Chihiro Kameyama and his Fuji TV team, squarely targets the former demographic, being devoted to rap, a genre that has about the same appeal to Boomers as industrial noise.

Set in the tropical, laid-back Okinawa of tourist brochures, "Check it Out, yo!" resembles the 2004 Fuji hit "Kisarazu Cats' Eye." Both unfold at popular beach resorts, portray the locals as cute eccentrics and employ the same over-caffeinated comedy familiar from a million TV skits.

"Check it Out, yo!" director Rieko Miyamoto and producer Toru Ota, both TV veterans with many drama hits to their credit, are not simply recycling a proven formula, however. Their film, like much of the music it celebrates, is loud and in-your-face, but its various elements click together with a well-calibrated precision.

It is even instructive, showing how rap can leap a cultural barrier seemingly wider than the Pacific. The key is less the America-specific content, which gets lost in translation, than the beat and rhythm, which everyone in the film, from kids to grannies, pick up quickly, though the adults are comically clueless about rapping itself.

The heroes are a quartet of high-school friends -- three guys and a tomboyish girl, Yui (Mao Inoue) -- who go to a show by a local rap group and, save for the unimpressed Yui, become instant fans. The boys start a band with dreams of rap glory -- until they land a warm-up gig that ends in disaster. Meanwhile, their leader, the hyper, heart-on-sleeve Toru (Hayato Ichihara) falls hard for the slinky, older Nagisa (Shinobu Ito), another rap fan, much to the displeasure of Yui, who wants to be more than his buddy.

The boys find their groove much as the girls in "Swing Girls" did, by going back to the basics and rediscovering the sounds around them -- including electronic beats supplied by a blimp-sized, friendly Hawaiian (former sumo wrestler Konishiki) married to Yui's sister.

Miyamoto and her four principals -- real actors, not just the pretty faces of the moment -- try their damnedest to inject new energy into this familiar material, but the attempt feels strained -- and "Check it Out, yo!" disappears into the ether as soon as the lights go up.

* * * * *

Satoshi Kaneda's "Aoi Uta -- Nodo Jiman Seishunhen (Blue Song -- "Proud of My Voice" Youth Version)" is also about teen amateurs trying to make their musical mark -- but the characters, story and style are throwbacks to another era. Though set in the Tokyo and Aomori Prefecture of 2006, the film could have been released in 1976, when the postwar boom had ended, but the bubble era had not yet begun.

News photo
Gaku Hamada in "Aoi Uta -- Nodo Jiman Seishunhen" (c) "AOI UTA" SEISAKU IINKAI

Instead of kids who look well-off, well-content and well-wired into pop culture, even if they are wearing dorky school uniforms (see the cast of "Check it Out, yo!"), the film's young actors have an air of working class grit, provincial naivete and recession-era anxiety. Also, they are intense and serious in ways no longer fashionable -- but recognizable to fans of 1960s and 1970s seishun eiga (youth films).

Kaneda, a veteran director of V Cinema (straight-to-video) actioners, as well as producer Lee Bong Ou and scriptwriter Hiroshi Saito, are all in their 40s and thus old enough to remember the era and its films. They are not making a nostalgia piece, however, so much as returning to a humanistic tradition of finding cinematic heroes from the common people -- the more uncool the better. That includes "Nodo Jiman (Proud of My Voice)," the 1999 film by Kazuyuki Izutsu about the eponymous NHK song contest that became a well-loved hit. "Aoi Uta" is the belated sequel.

The story centers on another three guys and a girl from a rural, junior high school in Aomori: the pugnacious, but insecure, Tatsuya (Gaku Hamada), his puppy-dog, eager brother, Ryota (Satoshi Tomiura), his quiet pal, Shunsuke (Motoki Ochiai), and his cute classmate, Erika (Saki Terashima), who becomes his long-suffering girlfriend

Scheduled to sing Ryota's favorite song, "Que Sera Sera," at the class-graduation party, this quartet is rudely interrupted by Tatsuya's punk enemies -- and go their separate ways. Tatsuya and Shunsuke journey to Tokyo to make their fortunes, Erika becomes a hairdresser, and Ryota, an apprentice cook in town. Dreaming vainly of riches, Tatsuya ends up as an apprentice in a yakuza gang. After an eventful year, the other three enter the "Nodo Jiman" contest -- and issue a call to Tatsuya to join them.

"Aoi Uta" tells this story with rough humor and an emotional directness that verges on the over-obvious, but hits home nonetheless, just like the "Nodo Jiman" show itself. Trendy? Maybe not. The better film? Most definitely.

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