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Friday, April 11, 2008
Struggling to stay afloat
Japanese live-action films about teenagers are many, but about children, few. This is largely a box-office calculation — teenagers pay higher ticket prices than children. Also, children usually go to the theater for a feature-length version of a cartoon they know from television, though there are hugely successful exceptions.
So, who is the audience for "Chesuto" — a film revolving around a real-life long-distance swim for primary school children in Kagoshima? Readers of the Erika Tosaka novel on which the film is based, perhaps. Kagoshima natives, including the film's government and corporate backers, most certainly. But average kids at the multiplex?
I have my doubts — and not only because of the film's strong didactic streak. After all, the "Harry Potter" films teach lessons about loyalty, integrity and resourcefulness, among others, and they aren't playing to empty seats.
But they also make school — or at least the Hogwarts' version of it, look like a deliciously thrilling adventure. "Chesuto," on the other hand, is precisely the sort of film the culture ministry awards its seal of approval — that is, impeccably high minded. Its young heroes battle not monsters and wizards but their own fears and phobias in a story that follows age-old conventions of Japanese melodrama while illustrating pat moral lessons.
This isn't to say that "Chesuto," whose title is a Kagoshima dialect word for ganbaru (go for it), is charmless, or that director Toshihiro Saga is talentless. The film has moments, most found in the trailer, when it springs to life visually or comically. But it's too much like its central event — an endurance test on a set course whose end is in sight from the start.
The hero is Hayato (Kento Takahashi), who was born and raised in Kagoshima Prefecture (formerly Satsuma) and is intensely proud of that fact. He trains in a traditional Satsuma style of swordsmanship and has supposedly taken to heart his teacher's precepts, which have been handed down from generations of the school's swordsmen: Never lie, bully the weak or give up. Hayato, however, has been lying to his teacher, Miss Shiraishi (Nao Matsushita) — aka Natchi-sensei — about why he twice skipped the noncompetitive 4.2 km swim across Kinko Bay, an annual school tradition that involves intense training for the fourth- to sixth-grade swimmers, from beginners to experts.
The truth is, he can't swim, even though his boisterous fisherman dad (Masahiro Takashima) expects him to also be a son of the sea. But his dad traumatized him when he was 4 by tossing him from the boat as an impromptu "swimming lesson," and he has avoided the water ever since.
As a sixth-grader, this is his last chance to make the swim, so he raises his hand, together with everyone in his class, when Natchi-sensei asks for participants. A pudgy nonswimming classmate, Yuta (Kazuya Nakajima), is in a similar predicament, worsened by a case of irritable bowel syndrome.
To put it plainly, Yuta suffers from a perpetual case of the runs, which becomes, pardon the pun, a running (and somewhat disgusting) joke. Yuta receives private lessons from Natchi-sensei, while Hayato — skipping practice because he is embarrassed to be seen wearing the red cap of the beginner — spies on them from afar and takes notes.
Unexpected help arrives from Tomoaki (Kyoichi Mikuriya), a stand-offish transfer student from Tokyo. He tells Natchi-sensei he has no interest in the marathon swim, but when he sees Yuta floundering alone in the school pool he swims to the rescue with powerful strokes. Yuta and Hayato beg him to become their private coach and he agrees. An odd triumvirate is formed.
Subplots include that of Atsumi (Karen Miyazaki), a pretty, big-eyed girl and strong swimmer, who is too bossy for the boys, who nickname her "Black Pig." Hayato, though, is secretly entranced.
Will Hayato overcome his water phobia, Yuta master the breaststroke and Tomoaki join his new pals in their quest? That, and the resolutions of the various back stories, including Tomoaki's troubled family life, are all the film offers in the way of drama. The practice scenes that loom so large in most sports movies lack tension in "Chesuto."
Also, the swim itself lacks drama since the kids slog across the bay in two long rows, in a fixed order, with the stronger swimmers aiding the weaker. A tremendous achievement — but the kids in the multiplex, I think, would rather watch Quidditch.