Monday, October 06, 2008

Swing Girls - another insight into Japanese culture

I’m still getting to grips with Japanese cinema. I have easy rules of thumb for many national cinematic productions. Danish films centre around family relationships. French films tend towards atmosphere and emotion, often dark and sometimes surreal, with no need to produce concrete endings. Australian films shy away from sunshine and adopt a darker, drug-induced tone. Irish films appear low-budget (since they are) and park in a lot of angst with a small cast.

Japanese films are harder to label.

Swing Girls DVD cover

Last night’s entertainment was a borrowed DVD of Swing Girls. After an unfortunate set of accidents leading to the food poisoning of the school brass band, it is essential that a replacement band is formed and rehearsed in order to support the baseball team at their next important match.

The original culprits make another bad choice and decide to drop their remedial maths lessons by joining the band. Except their musical experience is mostly limited to playing the radio. Over time, and with many adventures along the way, a few core members finally get the rhythm of swing and become a jazz big band. But the now-recovered school brass band are not impressed.

It takes a long time to tell the story. The first half hour feels like a set of sequences that were roughly edited together but never finished. But it sets up the social background of the film, the education system, different treatment for star performers, rich and poor, girls deemed to have weight problems but without actually carrying excessive weight.

It initially feels like a film to be abandoned, but the last hour improves. Some things still baffled me by the end.

  • The remedial maths class was all female. Are Japanese school classes largely gender segregated even through the overall school is mixed?
  • Without giving away the story for any AiB readers who will go on to watch the film, the big band do eventually enjoy some success. Yet the film ends without the success being marked. It’s implied. Perhaps emphasising that personal satisfaction in reaching and demonstrating your dream is more important than official recognition.
Scene from Japanese film, Swing Girls

According to the unerring IMDB:

“All the music scores in the movie were actually performed by the actor and actresses themselves. They were not dubbed. Many of the actresses had never played an instrument before. They took intensive music lesson at Yamaha Music School for several months before the shooting began. To promote the movie, the actor and the actresses performed live in concerts in Japan and USA.”

While my knowledge of brass fingering is sketchy, I suspect that the actors may well have dubbed over their pictures. Despite that, the film is full of toe-tapping music from Glenn Millar and others.

A great soundtrack that makes up for the less-than-driven plot as the swing girls (and one boy) learn about what it takes to be committed to and passionate about performing music, discover what really goes on behind the doors and inside the head of their dull-looking remedial maths teacher.

Back to labelling Japanese films. Perhaps the trend is that they have a tendency to take a strange situation and then add a lot of unexpected but not overdramatic twists, concentrating on exploiting people’s weaknesses until they find solutions to improve.


Anonymous said...

if you liked Swing Girls, there's a new film from the same director Shinobu Yaguchi called Happy Flight.

qq said...

u cant take japanese absurd comedy movies seriously.., dont see em with logic or hi philosophy or whatever, most of em are very comical and absurd.., that is if u wanna enjoy watching the movies..

check these out:

- detroit metal city
- summer time machine blues
- university of laughs
- 700 days of battle against the police
- kamikaze girls

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan, I just stumbled upon your blog as a bit of coincidence... I too am a blogger from Belfast!

If you are interested in Japanese films, there is an upcoming showcase on in Queens Film Theatre in March. Hopefully it will be really interesting!
More details available here:

Best Wishes, Sophie.

Alan in Belfast said...

Sophie - will alert the colleague who is into all things Japanese and from whom I borrowed the Swing Girls DVD.

Keep blogging!