Posted by: asianfilmreviews | May 24, 2009

Swing Girls (2004)

Swing GirlsSwing Girls (スウィングガールズ)

Director: Shinobu Yaguchi (矢口史靖)

Cast: Juri Ueno (上野 樹里), Yuta Hiraoka (平岡祐太), Naoto Takenaka (竹中 直人), Shihori Kanjiya (貫地谷しほり), Yuika Motokariya (本仮屋ユイカ), Yukari Toyoshima (豊島由佳梨)

No country more than Japan has proven to be better suited to crafting fresh, creative, and winning comedies. From Koki Mitani’s (三谷幸喜) subversive genre mash-ups to quality commercial products like Lee Sang-Il’s (이상일)comedy/drama Hula Girl (フラガール), Japanese directors are dishing out laughs without resorting to gross-out gags, sex jokes, and overall perverse humor. Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that all comedies need to be clean-cut family affairs. Airplane is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and it contains a constant stream of sex jokes, drug references, body humor jokes, and even a little nudity – all in a PG rating for the time! But every now and then, it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t fit the mold that we’re so used to seeing, and that’s the case with Swing Girls, a fantastic blend of Japanese comic sensibilities with Big Band jazz. I taught an International Cinema class one semester at my university and opened the class with a screening of Swing Girls to ease the students (most of whom were extremely unfamiliar with foreign films of any kind) into a world of subtitled films, and despite following it up later in the semester with some of the most acclaimed and beloved films of all time (The Bicycle Thief, Rules of the Game, etc), most in the class found Swing Girls to be their favorite film of the semester. Yes, it’s just that fun.

As the movie begins, it is summer in Japan. The cicadas are singing, the sun is out, and the heat is sweltering, all the while a group of girls is stuck in a makeup math course when they would rather be outside doing something else – particularly Tomoko (Juri Ueno), who is enviously watching the school band board the bus for an away baseball game. The balmy weather plays an integral part in the story, not just as a seasonal setting, but as the initial force that sets up the rest of the film. Before the band can leave for the baseball game, they have to wait for a catering service to deliver their pre-packaged lunches. When the lunches arrive after the band has left, Tomoko and her new friend Yoshie (Shihori Kanjiya) persuade their teacher (played by the chameleon-like Naoto Takenaka) to let the entire class hand-deliver the lunches. Unfortunately, after sharing a lunch box, the group falls asleep on the train and misses their stop. To make it to the game in time, they have to walk back to the previous stop in the blazing heat through rice paddies. Naturally, the lunches turn rancid and give a nasty case of food poisoning to the whole band, save for lucky cymbalist/pianist Nakamura (Yuta Hiraoka) whose lunch was shared by the girls on the train. As the band is laid up and unable to perform at baseball games, Nakamura forces the girls to take up the instruments and learn to play. Well, there aren’t enough for a proper school band, but the size is just right for a swing jazz band.

It makes for a fantastic beginning, and director Yaguchi greatly demonstrates that he has matured as a storyteller since Waterboys by focusing on a clear chain of cause-effect events, eliminating the extraneous silliness, and forgoing uninteresting sidestories. The girls are coerced into playing instruments by Nakamura (he knows the rancid lunches are their fault), and they initially goof around and feign disinterest, but the truth is that they quickly grow to love Big Band jazz. They’re smitten, and with Nakamura’s help, they want to continue. By zeroing in on the girls and this, their primary goal, the film is incredibly accessible. But that doesn’t mean there is no fun to be had. Following the girls as they first pick up their instruments, we learn that they absolutely stink. Check it out as they butcher Take the A Train:

Of course they’re going to get better, but the fun is in the journey. The girls don’t have the money to buy their own instruments, so they do what every young person did when they wanted to buy something expensive, they start scrounging for things to sell and get any job they can, but this leads to disastrous and hilarious outcomes (in the film, anyway). In one particular sequence, the group is looking for rare mushrooms on a mountainside to sell when they are ambushed by a wild boar. The treatment of the scene, done in faux still frames complete with anime-style nose drippings to symbolize the characters’ fear and Louis Armstrong’s classic rendition of What a Wonderful World playing over the action, is both hilarious and a perfect example of that age old storytelling tradition – make things difficult for your characters. If they’re stuck in a tree, then throw rocks at them.

But this journey wouldn’t mean squat if you didn’t care about the characters, and while Yaguchi uses shortcuts in the form of character types (the overweight girl, the shy nerd, the boy-crazed girl), it all works for what he is trying to accomplish as the characters do indeed grow and change by the story’s end because they learn to play as a band. Juri Ueno proves again that she is one of Japan’s most talented young actresses. Adept in everything from zany manga adaptations to compelling dramas, she carries the other young stars as Tomoko. Also standing out is Naoto Takenaka as their math teacher and diehard jazz enthusiast. Roped in to teaching the band how to play, he has to hide the fact that he actually has zero musical ability. By the film’s end, the band gets the chance to showcase their talents at a regional music festival that is traditionally dominated by classical music. Consistent with the film’s theme of love for great, toe-tapping music, the goal is not to win any sort of prize or monetary award, but to swing and spread the music. It is in this aspect where the film absolutely outshines every other movie of this ilk. There are no romantic subplots (in fact, Yaguchi is clever enough to tease at romance only to pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet… TWICE) or extraneous junk – it’s all about the music. And in the case of Swing Girls, art imitates life as the actresses actually had to learn to play their respective instruments so they could perform in the film and even perform live concerts for the film’s promotion. This learning experience may have been shortened for the film (I wish I could learn to play any instrument in the span of a few weeks), but it’s more about what the music means than how they learn to play in the story world. Take a look at the following clip to see the girls come together (but you’ll have to see the movie itself for the absolutely amazing finale as the band tackles some of the greatest jazz compositions of all time in a rousing concert format):

No doubt the musical training was a tremendous strain for those actresses who had little to no musical ability to begin with, as shown in the Special Features disc in the 2-Disc Japanese edition, but it made for a fantastic film in which Yaguchi not only created characters that feel natural and grow as the film goes on, but also a film which shows that jazz is not just for brandy-swirling geriatrics, but it can be enjoyed by everyone from any culture. If the ending does not have you tapping your toes or fingers in time with the music, then there is very little hope for you.


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