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A Gender Twist on Zero-to-hero Films in Japanese Cinema

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

Uplifting Youth Films

Shinobu Yaguchi's latest film Swing Girls is almost identical to his previous hit Waterboys, save for a simple gender switch. It then reminds us of Masayuki Suo's Sumo Do, Sumo Don't and Shall We Dance, and also Itsumichi Isomura's Give it All. All these are uplifting zero-to-hero films centering on a group of young people (with the exception of Shall We Dance's middle-aged protagonist) who learn an unusual skill, in most cases, a sport.

Films in this genre all follow the same formula: some know-nothing youngsters need to learn a skill in order to excel in a competition or a show for some weird or even absurd reasons. They then strive for glory and succeed in the end. Sport is often chosen as the subject matter, for it conveniently requires the uplifting spirit that these films want to convey. They inevitably romanticize the protagonists and create certain grand narratives – all the conflicts and limitations of reality are nothing in the face of these youngsters' efforts, will power, and team spirit. As the genre is so well established, something new must be added each time to make the film an enjoyable one.

Uplifting films about young people playing sports can be found as far back as the Japanese sports drama TV series of the 1970s, such as volleyball drama V is Our Sign. While the trend of TV series turned to romantic dramas in the 1990s, the theme has now been resurrected through films such as those well received and widely acclaimed ones mentioned previously.

Does the enduring popularity of these stories concerning young people joining forces to succeed in sports reflect something deeper in Japanese culture? An emphasis on honor in Bushido? The persistence advocated in Confucianism? Subtle association between team spirit and patriotism? Or has the determination applied to developing industries during the post-war period now been transplanted to music and sports? All these are possible. But these films also share something simpler, yet more significant. Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, Shall We Dance, Give it All, Waterboys, and Swing Girls were all produced by Shoji Masui or his company Altamira Pictures. Sometimes we forget the importance of producers in the film industry.

Masculinity in the Sumo Boys

Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, the first zero-to-hero film produced by Shoji Masui, grossed huge box office and snatched five awards at the 16th Japan Academy Prize ceremony in 1993. Directed by Masayuki Suo, the film has Masahiro Motoki portraying Shuhei Yamamoto, who joins a fading Sumo team in exchange for a passing mark from his Sumo champion-turned-professor (Akira Emoto). After a fiasco in the first match, Yamamoto, on behalf of the whole Sumo team, rashly promises to win the upcoming competition.

While the ending of this film, of course, cannot escape the genre's formula, Masayuki Suo is clever enough to weave in some reflections on life, without falling into the standard model of coming-of-age films. Instead he inserts plenty of comedic elements to dilute the seriousness that this genre usually carries. This use of comedy may be one of the keys to the film's success.

Masayuki Suo started his career directing adult films. Familiar with shooting the female body, he focuses on naked men in Sumo Do, Sumo Don't. The over-aged college student Tomio Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) often emphasizes that sumo players wear a "miwashi", not a "jockstrap". Yamamoto, naked save for his miwashi, feels embarrassed when meeting the honorary manager, a female graduate student. Adding a foreigner to the team does not serve to explore any cultural differences in the film, but rather is used solely for comic effect, with him refusing to expose his butt. But although the four Japanese actors are almost naked throughout the film, the film never strays from gender conventions by attempting to turn these men into objects of desire.

Other wrestlers refer to Shuhei Yamamoto as a "damned fruit" because he wears an earring, but his ego is not effected in the slightest, with the film continually stressing the masculinity of sumo as a sport. His brother Haruo (Masaaki Takarai) starts sumo precisely because he loathes to cross-dress as a woman in the wrestling team. The new female manager, Mutsuko Sakura (Yuki Anayama), has never transgressed the gender boundary by stepping into the sumo ring, a forbidden place for women in Japanese tradition; her pretending to be a man rather emphasizes the border between genders. Sakura's actions only serve to highlight friendship and team spirit but not to explore any gender issues.

Involvement of gender and body issues in Sumo Do, Sumo Don't aim to either move or amuse the audience - and are mostly successful - but nothing more. Just as in Itsumichi Isomura's Give it All, also produced by Shoji Masui, Etsuko's (Rena Tanaka) repudiation of her school's tradition of not having a girls' rowing team serves only to preface a touching coming-of-age film. Prior to Give It All, Shoji Masui also produced Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance which details a middle-aged man's reflection upon his life. Instead of these two well-made films, the real successor to Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, however, is perhaps Shinobu Yaguchi's Waterboys.

A Queer Twist Brought by Yaguchi Shinobu

Waterboys starts with a beautiful female teacher Sakuma (Kaori Manabe), who dreams of organizing a synchronized swimming team in an all-boys high school. Only five boys, including Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki), join the team for they have nowhere else to go. After committing the team to a performance at the town's cultural festival, Sakuma suddenly discovers that she is 8 months pregnant! The five boys, suddenly left on their own, seek help from a weird dolphin trainer, and also try to sell their show's tickets to local drag queens.

It doesn't take a genius to guess that the boys ultimately put on a wonderful synchronized performance. Naoto Takenaka, playing the dolphin trainer, again portrays a pseudo expert. He later tackles a similar role in Swing Girls. Contrary to Masayuki Suo, Shinobu Yaguchi does not bring in gender twists in order to create jokes. To him, jokes are there to help subvert gender constructions, which are the end but not the means. The idea of male synchronized swimmers per se is already camp enough. There is a funny scene showing a gay boy confessing to having a crush on a fellow team member. Shinobu Yaguchi has never taken the chance to mock homosexuality, nor has he escalated the whole issue to the level of queer politics. Beneath the amusement only lies an unbiased representation of people who have crossed the border between genders.

In Waterboys, Akira Emoto, the professor in Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, blurs the gender boundary by appearing as a drag queen at night and an ordinary middle-aged man during the day. For the waterboys, in small triangular trunks, though with more covered flesh than the sumo boys, being praised as "kawaii" (cute) by a bunch of drag queens only reminds us that they have now been turned into objects of desire by spectators on-screen (drag queens) and off-screen (the audience) alike.

After bringing in such queer twists in Waterboys, Shinobu Yaguchi turns his focus to the females in Swing Girls. A group of high school girls volunteer to deliver lunch boxes to the school's brass band just to avoid their mathematics make-up class. But the food turns sour, and all the band members except Takuo (Yuta Hiraoka) get sick. Takuo insists that the girls replace the sick members, but the small number of students only allows for a jazz band. They secure their jazz-loving mathematics teacher (Naoto Takenaka again!) to conduct the band, and finally stage their first performance successfully after countless obstacles.

A gender reversal to Waterboys, Swing Girls revolves around girls who fall in love with jazz music, something they initially see as only of interest to middle-aged men. While Waterboys features a smart girl Shizuko (Aya Hirayama) who takes the initiative all the time, even in dating Suzuki, Swing Girls adds a feminine but adorable teenage boy Takuo to take orders from the girls. Takuo, appearing only in medium or long shots in contrast to the close-ups given to the girls, deliberately appends the words "and a boy" after "Swing Girls" on the band's poster, ironically reminding the audience of his lack of masculinity. Stereotypes of the two genders simply disappear in Swing Girls. Even a sub-plot about a heterosexual romance, usually seen in these uplifting dramas, is dismissed by Tomoko (Juri Ueno) shaking a tree and dumping snow on Takuo's head.

Swing Girls, like Waterboys, introduces a queer twist to a well-established genre via jokes, and is no less amusing than Sumo Do, Sumo Don't. The sharp characterization of the five boys/girls in both Yaguchi's films also contributes to the films' success, as does the caricature depiction. Waterboys received two awards and eight nominations at the Japanese Academy Awards, whereas Swing Girls won six out of its eight nominations. Only time will now tell if we have seen the last of Shoji Masui's zero-to-hero stories, or what new twists his directors will introduce.

(Originally published in a.m. post Issue 17. Reprinted with permission.)

Published May 2, 2006

  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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