Note: This is an import title in NTSC format from Japan. Though available online and at many specialty shops throughout America, a region-free or Region 2/NTSC player is required when viewing this title.
An entertaining but cloying comedy-drama about high school girls who form a jazz combo, Swing Girls (Suuingugaaruzu - Swing Girls, 2004) is broadly played, at times badly acted and woefully predictable, though it still sucks you into its story and is irresistibly watchable.
The film takes place in Japan's Tohoku region, a rural area far north of Tokyo and something like the equivalent of North Dakota. Hot in the summer and bitterly cold in winter, it's the sort of environment where the only place teenagers have to hang out is in front of the local convenience store. At summer school, a clique of mostly rebellious, disinterested teenage girls attend a math class taught with a similar lack of enthusiasm by Tadahiko Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka). When the school's generously-financed brass band leaves to play at an out of town baseball game, they forget their bento lunch boxes. Ozawa's students, mainly interested in ditching their boring class, offer to deliver the bento and support the school's baseball team.
But the girls being what they are - inept, irresponsible - miss their stop, screw around, and in the summer heat the food spoils, and the band comes down with a severe case of food poisoning. Held responsible, the girls are compelled to take the band's place for a few days, in spite of the fact that almost none of them can play an instrument or read music. Yuta (Yuta Hiraoka), an inept cymbal player and the one band member who didn't eat the spoiled food, takes it upon himself to try to whip them up into something like a real band.
Inspired by some old jazz LPs, Yuta decides the girls are best-suited to big band jazz, though they're initially quite annoyed at being drafted into the music department. Eventually though, several girls, especially tenor sax player Tomoko (Juri Ueno), introverted, geek trombonist Kaori (Yuika Motokariya), fat girl drummer Naomi (Yukari Toyoshima), and a pair of electric guitarists (Fumiko Mizuto and Kana Sekine) start enjoying themselves, along with Yuta, who turns in his cymbals and unleashes a talent as a keyboardist. But the original band is soon back on its feet and the girls, unexpectedly heartbroken, see their dreams shattered.
However, Tomoko and Yuta just can't get the thought of a jazz band out of their mind. Hocking her little sister's PlayStation 2, Tomoko buys a used saxophone, and pretty soon the old band is back together and quickly on its way to the big Student Music Festival.
Swing Girls gets off to a shaky start, with the intensely annoying girls failing to engender much sympathy. They're airheads who fashionably hate everything, except of course Louis Vuitton handbags and their yankii boyfriends. But the tried-and-true machinations of this over-milked genre still work their undeniable charm, and the enthusiastic, hopeful faces (if not the characters) of Hiraoka's Yuta and especially pig-tailed Ueno's Tomoko are hard to resist.
It's an uphill fight, however. The film operates on the outrageous conceit that a group of high school girls with no music background could pick up instruments and, with no qualified teacher and, for the most part, no sheet music, become mini-Benny Goodmans, Tommy Dorseys and Gene Krupas. They whip up their own orchestrations and even some fancy onstage choreography worthy of Glenn Miller. Though the music sounds great, anyone who has actually struggled long and hard to learn to play an instrument will likely roll their eyes in contempt.
The girls (plus Yuta), some of whom had no musical background in real life, reportedly actually play all their own music on the soundtrack, but if this is true (and this reviewer isn't entirely convinced) they at least had months of intensive study during preproduction. That the girls in the movie could achieve so much in less than one year borders on fantasy.
The film's comedy is played in the very broad, cartoony style popular in Japanese cinema and on TV, and reminiscent of Japanese manga, though Shinobu Yaguchi's (Waterboys) script (with wife Junko) is one of the relatively few not based on one. Such broad slapstick and over-the-top emoting comes at the expense of characterization. When Tomoko steals her sister's PlayStation 2, the scene is played as a comic chase, but if it had taken itself a little more seriously, as an expression of Tomoko's desperation, the movie would have carried a bit more weight.
It also doesn't help that much of the comedy just isn't funny. A particularly embarrassing scene that should have been cut altogether has the girls sneaking onto private land to steal valuable matsutake mushrooms so they can buy instruments. The girls have a encounter a wild boar and as Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World incongruously plays on the soundtrack, the girls runs from the boar in three dimensional freeze frames a la The Matrix.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 1.85:1 format, Swing Girls is presented in its original aspect ratio in 16:9 anamorphic format, in a transfer comparable to other contemporary titles, in other words: bright, clean, no wear, no problems. The Japanese-language film is offered in both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 5.1 DTS, both of which are put to full use during the musical sequences. Optional, easy-to-read English and Japanese subtitles are included, and the menu screens are, for the most part, in both English and Japanese.
Extras include two audio commentary tracks, but as both of those are in Japanese, English speakers won't likely get much out of them. The same holds true for the "Music Introductions," which provide, in Japanese, background on the numbers featured in the film. This leaves a batch of Trailers and TV Spots, which are spoiler-filled and best watched after the main feature.
It's hard to argue with Swing Girls' sweet affection for its bunch of losers who find meaning and passion in their otherwise drab lives through a shared love of jazz. But if the film had been a little meatier and a bit less eager to follow genre conventions it might have been something special, instead of the trifling entertainment it is.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.