Shinobu Yaguchi makes gentle, charming comedies. I'd been hearing good things about the likes of Waterboys, Swing Girls
and Happy Flight and it looks as if it's all true. I'm probably going to watch the lot.
There's nothing edgy or startling about Waterboys. You could show it at your church meeting or to your grandparents. It's about nothing more extreme than Japanese schoolboys doing synchronised swimming, which understandably gets laughs and/or incredulity from everyone who hears about it. You can imagine the jokes. This isn't exactly macho. Synchronised swimming's for girls. Even our heroes themselves are far from sure whether this is what they want want to be doing, so we're nearly halfway through the movie before they finally commit for good. Most of them only got involved in the first place because of the hot new teacher in charge of the swimming club, while individually they're driven by a variety of motivations including "I have homosexual feelings for one of my friends" and "I may look like a stick of spaghetti, but I want to work on my physique and be a muscleman".
Apart from a few details, you've probably already worked out what happens in this film. It's not unlike The Full Monty, except with a more substantial plot and no attempt at doing serious bits. Our heroes are initially clueless, but work hard in unconventional ways and overcome the inevitable plot obstacles until eventually the film ends with a spectacular crowd-pleasing performance as they show off their stuff. Does the hero have a last-minute crisis and back out, letting the show start without him, until he's talked into going ahead with it anyway by a non-participating supporting character? You betcha! The fun of this film isn't in wondering what's going to happen, but merely in watching the inevitable unfold. It's charming. The worst crime it commits is occasionally to meander a bit, whereas on the upside there's no part of the movie that's not trying to make you happy. This it does pretty well. Its jokes aren't ambitious, usually being based on reaction shots and the psychology of boys, but that doesn't mean I wasn't laughing a lot anyway. I particularly like the way that Yaguchi comes across as both affectionate towards his characters and aware of their failings, as with for instance the little girl who thought our heroes were drowning in the sea and seems to regard this mainly as an exciting opportunity to see corpses.
One oddity about the film is that the characters are relatively unimportant. Our heroes all have their own personality traits, but for the most part they operate as a group. The film often seems to regard them as a five-headed sychronised swimming gestalt, which works surprisingly well and even arguably makes it more realistic. They're teenage boys. They're not going to be grand eccentrics or mythic heroes. A lot of the humour here comes from Yaguchi's view of male psychology en masse, which leads for instance to a lot of sight gags that I'm sure would have been done differently in a Hollywood version.
That's not to say that they're faceless, though. Our five protagonists are all different. There's the leader of the group, who'd been swimming even before this hot new teacher came along and has a big enthusiastic smile that reminds me of someone I used to teach once. Apart from him, there's the nervous homosexual, the wimp, the mathematics geek in spectacles and the guy with an afro who used to be in the basketball club. You couldn't call this deep characterisation, but it would be a mistake to call it undercooked. On the contrary, it's successfully doing the job it was designed for.
The non-swimmers actually come across more as individuals, since they don't have to spend lots of screen time swimming. The main one is a dolphin trainer played by Naoto Takenaka, who's an actor, singer, comedian and director who has the face of a gnome and was in The Happiness of the Katakuris
. I see Yaguchi used him again in Swing Girls
. There's also a girl who knows karate, likes our hero and seems very nice, although there were a couple of moments where I wasn't entirely convinced by the actress. While I'm talking about the actors, though, the lead dude with the smile is played by one Satoshi Tsumabuki, who was also in Dororo and the 1999 GTO movie! I didn't know there was a GTO movie! The anime series, live-action TV series and special, yes. Apparently that was a sequel to the live-action TV stuff, has the same actors and should probably be watched in sequence. (As for Dororo, I don't mention it because I expect anyone to have heard of the film but simply because I happened to see it in a cinema in Japan. It's based on an Osamu Tezuka manga.)
The finale is obviously the make-or-break sequence. Yaguchi's problem is that synchronised swimming isn't actually very interesting to watch, so he solves this by having the boys turn it into a show that usually involves swimming. If you've ever wanted to watch skinny Japanese schoolboys in trunks line-dancing to J-pop on the edge of a pool, this is your chance. Is that what it says on the tin? No, not exactly, but it's a hoot to watch. I wasn't sure about how this was going to go at first, but in the end I loved it. Oh, and I really liked the bouncy happy they played over the closing credits, too.
The biggest surprise for me was how big a deal it was to have your swimming pool emptied. You'd think it was just a matter of turning on the taps again, but apparently not. It happens twice in the movie and the first time it's merely expensive for our heroes in paying for the water bill, but then the second time it's a show-stopper. I'm not entirely sure the screenplay isn't skating on thin ice there, but I was enjoying the film enough that I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The film launched a spin-off TV series that went to three seasons, by the way. It was also nominated for eight prizes at the Japan Academy Prize, winning for 'Best Newcomer' and 'Best Music Score', and just importantly was a big hit that's still well-remembered today.
This isn't trying to be a brilliant film. It's a good 7/10, or eight when it's good. However it's also charming, likeable and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. It's not a mould-breaking story, but it does what it does very well. Take the drag queens, for instance. They do everything you think they will and that's exactly why they're funny. In case you'd been wondering, by the way, I'd say that this is a better film than The Full Monty, if only since it feels as if it's been plotted as a movie rather than TV. I'd recommend it to anyone.