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You would have to be incredibly incompetent as a director, writer, and actor to go wrong with a movie like “Swing Girls”. This is the type of film that has equal combinations of fluff, inspiration, and general affability, three elements that should win anyone over unless they were predisposed to hate anything and everything. True to form, “Swing Girls” is every bit as funny, vacuous, and breezy as 2001’s “Waterboys”, the template from which “Swing Girls” was made from. As with “Waterboys”, the director of “Swing Girls” is Shinobu Yaguchi, who at this point could probably orchestrate “Girls” to great success with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back. This is a winning formula, and you would have to try awfully hard to screw it up.
“Swing Girls” opens in the summer, where a group of delinquent girls (or at least, academically adverse girls) are going through another boring round of summer school. Of the girls, there is Tomoko (Juri Ueno), who has never finished anything she started; Yoshie (Shihori Kanjiya), who has a crush on one of the school’s baseball player; the shy and awkward Sekiguchi (Yuika Motokariya); and passive, music nerd Nakamura (Yuta Hiraoka), who when we first meet him, is planning to quit band because he’s stuck playing the cymbals, which he’s awful at. After an incident involving spoiled food sends the school’s entire band and their Hawaii-obsessed teacher to the hospital, Nakamura blackmails Tomoko and the girls, all music challenged, into filling in.
Although they rebel against Nakamura’s rule at first, the girls eventually grow into liking this jazz band thing. Alas, soon the real band returns from the hospital to reclaim their position, forcing our pack of delinquents and Nakamura out. Flash forward to another year at school, where Tomoko gets the idea to start their own jazz band outside of school. There are problems, of course, chief among them money, time, and dedication. But the girls (and boy) persist, and soon they’ve found a mentor in the neurotic schoolteacher Ozawa (Japanese cinema veteran Naoto Takenaka), who as it turns out has a very embarrassing secret.
With all the pieces finally in place, where will the girls’ musical talents lead them? Well, actually, it leads them to a band showcase, where the film ends with surprisingly little fanfare. Although very much in the vein of the overly familiar Sports Movie genre, “Swing Girls” delineates from conventions about fifty percent of the time. Without a doubt, the set-up is pure Sports Movie, right down to the delinquent girls, the hesitant coach, and the unbelievably quick transition by the girls from music challenge to good musicians. Nevertheless, there is something about the earnest way with which the film courageously chugs along that almost convinces you this is all original stuff. Of course we all know it isn’t, far from it, in fact; but you have to give credit where credit is due — “Swing Girls” is so downright honest with itself that you can’t help but give it all the leeway in the world.
One of the smarter things “Swing Girls” doesn’t do is force a relationship between its two leads, Nakamura and Tomoko. In fact, the film is devoid of cheesy, formulaic romances between its characters, which is a welcome relief from the usual gaggle of teen-focused films out there. There are also no silly love triangles to complicate matters, no stereotypical evil jocks to torment our heroes, and no odious rival competitors for our characters to rail against. In short, although it’s highly formulaic in spots, “Swing Girls” nevertheless bucks much of the conventions you’ll find in just about every high school-centric comedy that’s come before it. This makes the film familiar, yet different, which is something you don’t find everyday.
Like “Waterboys”, the focus of “Swing Girls” is more on the girls and the hijinks they get into while trying to perfect their sound. Or in this case, trying to learn to play before their used instruments fall apart on them. The trials and tribulations of the girls translate into more than enough funny moments to make “Swing Girls” a pleasure to sit through from beginning to end. And even when it’s not funny (which is rare), “Swing Girls” manages to be cute without ever crossing over into annoyance. It goes without saying that you would have to possess a heart of stone to hate these girls. They’re that charming.
Although Juri Ueno’s Tomoko is the apparent lead, the film has a fairly large cast. The band itself consists of about 20 or so girls, although all but six abandon the music experiment for a long stretch in the middle. As with “Waterboys”, we get almost no background on the girls, and the only home life we ever see is of Tomoko’s. What we do learn comes in passing, such as the fact that Nakamura comes from a wealthy family, but otherwise the film seems determined not to inject any sort of real life for the girls beyond their immediate quest for respect as swing musicians. Does it hurt the film that the focus is always on the girls and their band, and never on any “real life” issues? Not in the slightest.
As a comedy first and foremost, “Swing Girls” more than makes up for any semblance of substance with its many funny moments — some predictable, but others coming out of the blue, such as a scene of Tomoko racing through the snow and, without warning, falling. Funny stuff. Although it runs an hour and 40 minutes, the film feels much shorter. And apparently the girls actually learned how to play their instruments, and in fact are now on something of a world tour. No surprise that the girls are actually musicians, or learned to be musicians, as they are very convincing onscreen, especially during the finale, which is essentially a 15-minute concert.
You would be forgiven for thinking that “Swing Girls” is basically a girl version of “Waterboys”, because it is. Like “Waterboys”, “Swing Girls” sells comedy and hijinks, and it certainly delivers on both. As I like to say, it is what it is — and “Swing Girls” does what it is so well, you are liable to forgive it just about anything.
Shinobu Yaguchi (director) / Junko Yaguchi, Shinobu Yaguchi (screenplay)
CAST: Yuta Hiraoka …. Nakamura
Shihori Kanjiya …. Yoshie
Yuika Motokariya …. Sekiguchi
Miho Shiraishi …. Yayoi
Naoto Takenaka …. Ozawa
Kei Tani …. Morishita
Yukari Toshima …. Naomi
Juri Ueno …. Tomoko