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All that most male viewers probably need to know is that “Oppai Volleyball” translates as ‘breast volleyball’ and that it stars the gorgeous swimsuit model turned actress Haruka Ayase as a teacher who tries to inspire a young school boy volleyball team by promising she will show them her breasts if they manage to win. Adapted from a novel by Mizuno Munenori and supposedly based upon a true story, the film was directed by Hasumi Eiichiro, previously responsible for “Umizaru” and ski comedy “Season of Snow”. Surprisingly, despite its potentially sleazy premise, the film is actually a light hearted mixture of underdog sports story and coming of age journey – albeit with probably more mentions of the word ‘boob’ than in any other respectable production in recent memory.
The film is set in back the 1970s and begins as a young female teacher called Mikako (Ayase, who recently also headlined “Ichi” and “Cyborg She”) starts at a new high school and is asked to coach the boy’s volleyball team. Unfortunately, the lads are a useless bunch, who have never actually played the game, and who spend their time peeping at girls instead of practicing. Determined to encourage them, Mikako, in a round about way, promises to show them her breasts if they manage to win a game in the coming local tournament. Strangely enough, this galvanises the boob-obsessed losers, who suddenly show a great fervour for training, and actually start to look like they might be able to pull it off.
Although “Oppai Volleyball” is basically a one joke film, it certainly makes the very most of it, and even non Japanese speaking viewers will come away having the word for ‘boob’ burned into their brains after hearing it howled every few minutes. Much like its young characters, the film really is breast obsessed, with lots of gags revolving around associated wordplay or the boys trying to catch an eyeful. However, despite this, and the fact that it is hard to shake the feeling that there is something essentially not quite wholesome about the story, the film is a fairly innocent affair without anything perverse or distasteful. Most of the slapstick is innocuously amusing stuff, and as such its hard not to root for the team as they give their all in the name of getting Ayase to shed her top. This does make for some very funny moments, such as the boys constant chanting of ‘boobs!’ at decidedly inappropriate moments, or Ayase’s priceless motivational speech, which involves her whipping them into a battle frenzy by telling them ‘do your best to see my boobs!’ – all things considered, putting the oratories of Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” or Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” to shame.
Breast gags aside, the film actually works well as a coming of age story for the young boys, facing parental difficulties, bullying, and the realisation that their lives will soon be taking them on different roads. As things progress, the film increasingly focuses on Mikako’s personal journey, revealing her own chequered past and insecurities, as well as her relationships with her ex-boyfriend and a potential new beau. Though she doesn’t have anything too substantial to work with, Ayase has real screen presence, and turns in a good performance in her role, managing to flesh out her character beyond mere eye candy – though she certainly provides that as well, looking incredibly cute throughout.
The sports aspect of the film is reasonably well handled, though director Hasumi Eiichiro seems to forget all about the volleyball for long stretches of the running time aside from wacky training montages. Things do pick up for the last act, when the lads take on the usual black-clad evil team, and the finale is surprisingly rousing, leading to a satisfying conclusion. Eiichiro throws in plenty of 70s pop songs, which give the film a bright and breezy feel and help it to move along at a cheerful pace. Similarly, the production values are reasonably impressive, and the film does a good job of recreating the time and place, making for a fair amount of nostalgia.
Although undeniably slight, “Oppai Volleyball” is certainly a great deal of well-meaning fun and manages to entertain throughout. Whilst obviously a must-see for all fans of Haruka Ayase, it should also be enjoyed by anyone looking for sports comedy, light personal journey drama, or a non-stop onslaught of breast jokes.
Eiichiro Hasumi (director) / Munenori Mizuno (novel), Yoshikazu Okada (screenplay)
CAST: Haruka Ayase … Mikako Terashima
Munetaka Aoki … Kazuki Jo
Toru Nakamura … Kenji Horiuchi
Seiji Fukushi … Mikako’s ex-boyfriend
Masaki Honjô … Kengo Sugiura