I bet you can't guess what "oppai" means in Japanese! As soon as I heard that a movie of this title existed, it became a must-watch. Clue: I have no interest in volleyball.
I hardly need to say, do I? (Answer: "boobs".)
Actually, it's not what you're thinking. This is a family-friendly film. Haruka Ayase plays a beautiful new teacher who finds herself in charge of the perverted layabouts of the school volleyball club. They've never played a game in living memory and it seems unlikely that they even know the rules. They don't even have enough members to field a side. No one else at school thinks this shower are good for anything and the girls want them dead, but Ayase has other ideas. She wants them to take the club seriously. She tries to have a talk with them, but to put it mildly this doesn't go as planned.
Before long, Ayase finds that she's promised to go topless if they win a volleyball game. Obviously she hadn't meant to say anything of the sort, but sometimes you'll say a thing and not realise until too late that a weird interpretation can be placed on it. Normal people wouldn't have thought for a moment that you'd meant that, of course. From then on, the film pretty much writes itself.
The weird thing is that it's based on a novel by Mizuno Munenori that's supposedly based upon a true story. The mind boggles. However the film's version of events is a heartwarming comedy that never gives the impression of being about to show us anything. Even if Haruka Ayase carries through on her promise, it seems a safe bet that it's only going to be the boys who get an eyeful, not us in the audience. There isn't even second-hand nudity when the boys watch a dirty video. You could show this to anyone, although that said you wouldn't want them to be taking the boys as role models. What surprised me a little was how far the movie was prepared to go in characterising its perverts. For a while I actively disliked them. It's funny to see how far they're prepared to go in search of a nudity experience, but these aren't mere lovable scamps. They're jerks. They don't even know enough to stop talking trash, shut up and pay attention during assembly, all of which meant that occasionally in the film's first act I'd be wanting to hit them.
However the film needed to go this far. No matter how sweet and charming it gets, the boys give it an edge. Even towards the end when everyone's working as one and we've done all the emotional bonding scenes and so on, they'll still go around chanting "oppai" as if they're forgotten every other word in their vocabulary. If drama is all about characters acting on their motivation, then these freaks are about as motivated as you can get. It's childish, yes, but extremely funny.
They're half the equation, but just as impressive is our heroine, Haruka Asake. To get the superficial stuff out of the way first, she's gorgeous. After finishing this movie, one of the first things I did was to look up what else she'd done with a view to watching them too. Happily she's in Ichi
(the 2008 daughter-of-Zatoichi flick), Happy Flight (the latest from Shinobu Yaguchi), Cyborg She
(which sounds weird) and more. Two of those were already in my queue and now Cyborg She
has just joined the list. Apparently she was a swimsuit model before becoming an actress and I've heard that some of her performances haven't always been great, but you needn't worry about that here since by now she's been doing movies since 2002 and here I thought she was genuinely impressive.
What's so good about her here is that performance-wise she's walking a tightrope. On the one hand, she's a beautiful, innocent and completely normal girl who'd rather walk barefoot over burning coals than do what she's promised. However on the other hand, she also wants the club to succeed and she can see what a revolution it's brought about in the effort they're putting in. She's being pulled in two directions at once, sometimes in the same scene, and you couldn't ask for more clarity in how Asake plays both of those. This film may be light fluff, but she's extraordinarily good in it. It's not every actress who could get away with a motivational speech telling everyone to try their hardest to see her boobs. The results of all this, needless to say, are priceless. I laughed my head off at Haruka Asuke trying and failing to tackle the boys and/or her conscience. I don't know yet whether or not she's a good actress in other films, but here she's perfect.
The story has a few mild surprises. We get flashbacks to a couple of incidents in Asuke's past, one of which explains why she so dislikes people who go back on their word and the other of which involves an inspirational teacher from when she was a schoolgirl. Late in the film, she visits his gravestone. That ended up being surprisingly touching.
As far as I'm concerned, the film has only one problem: the music. This seems to be a common problem in Eiichiro Hasumi's films. He makes strong choices, which is good, but when it comes to the climactic volleyball game he pumps it up far too much and overwhelms the scene. The film turns into a parody of itself, which is a shame because with less overblown music we'd have had a gem. However on the upside that's only the precursor to the finale, with a surprise or two still to come and an ending that turns out more interestingly than I'd expected. Also apparently the film's supposed to be set in the 1970s, incidentally, although I hadn't guessed at the time. People who know more about Japanese music than me have said there are lots of 1970s songs on the soundtrack, some of which were catchy enough to make me want to look them up afterwards. If you know anime, then I was reminded of the opening theme to Magic User's Club
(OVA, not TV). So that's an upside to Hasumi's taste in music, then.
With that musical hiccup, this is a lovely movie that I'd recommend to anyone. We have dynamic, albeit not entirely wholesome, protagonists and an adorable heroine who ends up going a bit weird as a result of the promise she's unwittingly made. We have more serious scenes, such as the boys' discussion of what they'll do after graduation given the fact that afterwards they'll never be able to do things like this again, which I'm starting to suspect is obligatory in the "Japanese school sports film" genre. However the best thing about it is its unique combination of heartwarming emotional content and breast fixation. These don't clash but instead somehow reinforce each other, in a way that's often very funny indeed.
If nothing else, this film led me to go looking for other Haruka Asuke films and to contemplate doing the same for Eiichiro Hasumi. Henry V, Independence Day and Braveheart would surely all have been better with a pre-battle speech from a gorgeous Japanese schoolteacher telling everyone to work hard to see her tits.