Japanese Film Festival Day Ten: Swing Girls and [Closing Night!] Forget-Me-Not

Closing Night saw a repeat of Swing Girls in the morning and the premiere of the less popular Forget-Me-Not at night. It was not the most auspicious closing night ever, but prestige can get in the way of audience satisfaction.

Swing Girls

We’ll form our own band! With musical instruments!

From the director of Water Boys, one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, comes Swing Girls – which is essentially exactly the same story but with a female jazz band rather than a male synchronised swimming team.

When the Yamakawa Brass Band leaves for a baseball game without their lunches, it’s up to the summer maths make-up class to deliver them. Due to a series of mishaps, the food spoils and the entire band … bar the cymbalist … succumb to food poisoning. The cymbalist blackmails the maths class into replacing the band, and they agree to do it to get out of learning maths.
When the band returns, however, the maths class is displaced and realises that they had grown to love playing their instruments. Thereafter a plot is hatched to form this tuneless group into a true band of Swing Girls!

This session of Swing Girls was promoted as a students’ session, and so it should have come as no surprise that the cinema would be full of high school students on excursions. Sadly, high school students are too vulgar for my refined tastes, and I ended up seated in front of a girl who repeatedly complained that she didn’t get it, or the jokes weren’t funny, and she cheered when it was over.
Some people just can’t or shouldn’t go to the movies. This girl was an either/or. The rest of the audience was generally receptive but I much prefer the rarefied atmosphere of a cinema dedicated to … the art, or something equally pretentious.

Not that it mattered that much for the enjoyment of Swing Girls, which had silliness and melodrama in good measure. It was not quite as silly as Water Boys but then, no movie could ever be as awesome as one featuring flaming afros and mouth to mouth being performed on dolphins. Apart from having the usual delightful cast of broad types – enthusiastic fad girl; shy girl who becomes liked through showing dedication to the cause; dispassionate fat girl; a pair of semi-sukeban (and their spurned junkyard lovers); and, of course, the token boy – it also has the traditional theme of feeling good, which is something that I don’t mind in a movie.
Its single best moment outside of the elation of creating music (and the hilarious musical talent that apparently comes from selling your designer clothes) is when it pretends to be romantic and deliberately fails in a terrible way. Swing Girls gives new meaning to the phrase “sad girl in snow”.

Most of the drama featured in Swing Girls is contrived, but in a funny way that shows the triumph of the human spirit over the dogged evil of narrative obstruction. For a movie that’s fun to watch that also features a swinging big jazz band soundtrack, you can’t go far wrong with Swing Girls. After all, these girls learned all of their own instruments for the movie, so when you see them kicking it on stage, they’re kicking it for reals. Thus is the power of the cinema!


Woman speaks Japanese strangely, remembers the war

As this movie was being introduced, it was made clear that the director was Sugiwara Hiroshi, director of the film Fireflies: River of Light. Fireflies appeared at the Japanese Film Festival in 2004 and, by the end, I was crying due to the expected swell of music and delivery on a promise that it had on offer. It was for this reason that I expected something good of Forget-Me-Not. I generally liked it, but I couldn’t gauge the audience reaction. All of my friends thought it was boring.

Minako Schneider, faced with the realisation that she is going blind, vows to take pictures of the town where she spent her childhood during World War II. Sentimentality means that all of her photos are taken with a pinhole camera, but the nature of the camera leads to its destruction in a school yard. The student who broke it, established as bored in earlier scenes, makes a new pinhole camera following instructions found on the internet. Minako, not wishing to be alone as she goes on her journey, enlists the student and one of his friends to accompany her around the island and to hear her story … which is largely about her childhood spent following her older brother.

The problem with the Forget-Me-Not variety of movie is that you worry about the amount of time spent focusing on one time period. When I watch these, I wonder how long it’s going to be before the camera bounces from one era to the next. Sometimes I felt that the twee-ness of the idyllic World War II needed desperately to be balanced by the reflection of the present, and at other times I felt that the meandering of the present needed to be intruded upon by past reminiscence.

It would be hard to say exactly what this movie is supposed to mean, except that I had Sugiwari Hiroshi on hand to give a mission statement. He said that this movie was to commemorate the bombing of a munitions factory in which 3,000 people died … on August 8, 1945. Considering that it took place between two atomic bombs, this particular bombing largely escaped notice throughout Japan and the world.
To stretch the point, Forget-Me-Not is a reaction to Japan’s current situation, with the determination to live that was instilled in those living through the war directly analogous to the high suicide rate in modern Japan.

Yet, and I don’t mean to spoil things here, Forget-Me-Not is distinctly confused at certain junctions. After telling the students about her brother’s quests for treasure on an island not far offshore, they say “there wasn’t any treasure there, was there?” to which Minako replies “No, but they found their own treasures later”.
This stuck in my mind throughout the movie until finally I had to accept that what Minako said appears to actually have meant “no, but they died in a munitions factory bombing”.
What. Minako is telling a story to these students, but she shouldn’t be afraid of “spoiling” it.

The balance of “boy’s own adventure” to “horrors of war” is tipped fairly firmly in favour of “boy’s own adventure”, because the location of Forget-Me-Not is in one of the regions of Japan that was relatively safe in wartime. Only on the odd occasion does the war encroach on the lives of these boys … until Japan’s desperation increases to the point that children are forced into the effort. Sugiwara makes adequate use of an incredibly metaphorical “moving photo” to demonstrate the ravages of a war that struck these people mercilessly late.
The bombing scenes are well done, and quite horrific, if tinted by the stupidity of the young. Minako’s involvement in these scenes … which would have to be largely speculation on her part, although the movie would suffer if she admitted that she hadn’t seen inside the factory … becomes a source of pointless sixty year old guilt, which brings us back to the present.

Despite Sugiwara’s preachy intent (and I only told you the half of it), Forget-Me-Not does not seem terribly preachy. Minako’s story appears to be told without a value judgement, although it is quite difficult to understand the superstition behind her survivor’s guilt. Her words must have had an impact upon the classes that she told it to, because they respond by dancing “ee ja nai ka?” in the streets. At least I think that’s the message.

Forget-Me-Not engaged my interest at all times even if its messages sometimes confused me. It served as a good portrayal of “days-in-the-life” in a fairly unaffected area of Japan, but its integration with the modern day was imperfect and the subtitles were horrible. They were made this year … for the festival circuit! … and they were made by someone with a Western name, yet they were easily the worst of all of the films that I saw at the festival. Someone agrees to “defiantly” do something, “banzai” is uniformly translated to “bonzai” (which makes me wonder if the translator actually understands Japanese and, in the credits, there is mention of “foget-me-not”. Words fail to express.

I think that the ultimate moral of the story is that “optimism will keep you alive until an unfortunate bombing incident mere days before the end of a war”. I was fine with Forget-Me-Not, but I can’t recommend it to anyone; they might claim it’s “boring” at me but, those people being unable to explain why, I’ll have no idea what that means.

One Response

  1. kylie December 28, 2008

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