Ken MitsuishiTeruyuki KagawaRyoko TakizawaAtsushi Ito
Boys' Choir
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Akira Ogata
Writer: Kenji Aoki
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: gay subtext
Actor: Atsushi Ito, Sora Toma, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryoko Takizawa, Ken Mitsuishi, Reita Serizawa, Jun Kunimura, Shigeru Izumiya, Kihachi Okamoto, Kae Minami, Osamu Shigematu
Format: 129 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0233595/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 26 November 2010
I wouldn't call it entertaining. It's a film festival creature, the kind of movie that plays better to juries than to audiences. It's not actually bad, but it feels long and it's stodgy.
Its problem is that its ostensible protagonist (Atsushi Ito) is a lump. He's got a stammer and he doesn't like talking to people or even making eye contact with them. More precisely he's one of those fifteen-year-old Japanese boys who seem to be suppressing all emotional reactions and practically have to be bludgeoned into communicating with other human beings. Furthermore he's passive. Stuff happens around him. The plot, such little as there is, takes place without his involvement. We see him evolve as a person, but as far as we're concerned this might as well have happened by magic.
I didn't hate Ito, but I didn't care about him either. This is a distancing film. It seems to happen a long way away, to people to whom you have no particular emotional connection.
However I said there was a plot. There's also gay subtext. Ito's father dies and he gets sent to an orphanage, where everyone bullies him except the beautiful Sora Toma. How gay is Toma? Well, as well as being so androgynous that he looks female, he also develops a deep emotional attachment to Ito, at one point throws stones at him to stop him talking to a girl and has as his lifetime's ambition joining the Vienna Boys' Choir. He's also a bit of a drama queen. He takes things way too much to heart, at first pouring his life and soul into his singing and then later becoming a fervent supporter of the revolution. No, really. His chosen way of supporting them is to sing a song. Anyway, both goals end up getting a kicking from real life and in both cases Toma uplugs his brain and goes completely apeshit.
However it's all okay, because at the end Ito gives Toma a hug. This is the gay resolution of what had previously been very mild temptation with a girl. The boys' choir has a sing-off with a girls' choir and first they do some exercises together that if you carefully shoot them the wrong way, look as if Ito's getting a hand job.
Personally I'd bet money that the director (Akira Ogata) is homosexual. If nothing else, look at how much the camera's enjoying that shot of the male communal baths, whereas there's something cold about how he shoots a topless woman.
One impressive thing about the film is its 1970s setting. The film stock and colours are so accurate, with just the right level of roughness, that I was half-convinced I'd made a mistake and was watching an actual 1970s film. The script also reflects the era's political radicalism, with left-wingers bombing police stations in an attempt to bring on the revolution. One of them comes to the school to hide and that's where both Ito and Toma acquire their communist ideology. They show their support for the Soviet Union by wearing red scarves and deciding to sing a Red Army anthem. Okay, they're stupid. Toma in particular takes it all a bit far, but it's all of a piece with the era and it made the 1970s feel like an alien world in a way you don't often get either from films or TV. We're not talking about sixties hippy shit, but something more aggressive and fundamentalist. I was impressed by how well that was evoked, actually.
However at the same time, this is a Christian school. There are Christians in Japan, although not many, and they tend to be more active in their faith than the Church of England. I didn't notice any specific Biblical parallels, probably because they'd have gone over the head of the expected audience, but I think Christianity's message of love is an important element in the film.
As for their singing lessons? Whoah. They're doing that level of voice placement with schoolboys? That's proper singing tuition, that is, and they're almost military about it.
Does this film have entertainment value? I suppose I laughed a couple of times, but thinking back these were all, without fail, during the rare occasions when the film involved females. The girls of that other choir gave me a couple of laughs, while I loved the scene where someone blows themselves into bloody chunks. What, that wasn't meant to be funny? Well, you live and learn.
I'd have probably loved this film if I'd been able to connect better with the characters. I really admire its evocation of the 1970s and I managed to watch all 129 minutes of it peacefully enough, despite not caring about Ito and Toma. It's well observed and has some nice little episodes in which teenage boys do recognisably suicidal teenage boy things, such as for instance deciding to investigate near-death experiences by going for a swim in a pool of subterranean mountain meltwater. It's got good control of its tone and there's plenty of development and growth for our two protagonists. This film played at the Berlin Film Festival, won ten awards from various esteemed bodies and is basically an intelligent, sober piece of work.
However it's also uninvolving. Sorry. Incidentally, note at the end that Toma's melodramatic nonsense is trumped twice over by his precious Red Army song sounding far better from deep men's voices.