Shinobu Yaguchi is a name you should know. If you’ve ever even heard of Swing Girls, Water Boys, or Adrenaline Drive count yourself lucky.If you’ve actually seen them, even better. Yaguchi is a Japanese writer/director of ten films (so far). He’s also editor and cinematographer on a few as well. His films are, on the whole, light-hearted and fun. They tend to center around geeky outsiders finding themselves and their place in the world.
I discovered Yaguchi via my older brother. I walked up to his DVD collection, in need of something new to watch, and demanded he lend me something I’d never seen. I was then handed a large stack of mostly Japanese films and told to watch My Secret Cache first.
My Secret Cache (Himitsu no hanazono) is about a girl, Sakiko Suzuki, so in love with money she begins to wish she’d be kidnapped by bank-robbers. And then she actually is. The banks robbers don’t last very long and the money they steal ends uplost in a remote part of the forest.The rest of the film concerns itself with all the crazy accomplishments Sakiko achieves in her quest to get back the enormous sum of money. She learns to swim, takes up geology, enrolls in college, pushes away her family and any potential friends, simply because she’s only interested in the money. (At one point she’s asked on a date and replies, “I’d prefer the money”). The film is odd and amusing. And although I found myself wishing I too had an enormous stock pile of money somewhere, regardless of the remote locale, I also wished to never be like Sakiko, who’s obsessive love of money made her a lonely miser, even if she does eventually learn from her mistakes.
Next I watched Swing Girls, unaware at the time that these films were both made by Yaguchi . In 2005 Swing Girls won the Japanese Academy Award for best screenplay. I can tell why. It’s got the same odd and amusing elements as My Secret Cache, but the characters are a hundred times more charming. Swing Girls, like the name suggests is the story of a group of school girls who learn to play big band jazz. The plot structure is a lot like Yaguchi’s earlier film, Water Boys, a group of teenagers overcoming odds to learn their own special skill, to the disinterest/chagrin and then delight of their peers, with a big show stopping finish. I’d consider it the female counterpart to Water Boys (the two films even share the same actor in the role of reluctant mentor). I think the two films complement each other nicely. Swing Girls has a jovial vibe that left me wanting more. It’s heartwarming, funny and filled with wacky comedic moments. Indeed, most of Yaguchi’s work best described as wacky.
Water Boys is the definition of wacky. It’s about five teenage boys who learn synchronized swimming. It’s as awesome as it sounds. Actually, it’s better. The boys start out as part of a larger swim team, but after the female swim coach reveals she only teaches synchro, most of the boys drop out. Hilarity ensues. The remaining five (the loser, the “cool” one, the nerd, the body builder, and the stereotypical gay boy) try to learn, but between their teacher has a surprise baby and the pool being filled with fish, it’s slow going. Their early efforts are met with disaster (and fire!). The school cuts the program and our heroes end up at an aquarium learning from the dolphins. This is a wonderful film, over the top, and at times cheesy, but still one of the best comedies ever. There’s a scene with a dolphin and a boom box that was so fucking funny I had to hit pause and roll around (literally rolled on my floor) with laughter for about five minutes. I think if you don’t find this movie funny, you probably don’t have a soul.
The only drawback to this film is that the DVD isn’t available here in the U.S. The copy I borrowed was imported from Thailand. Out of Yaguchi’s ten films only two are officially available in the U.S, and only one is easy to get:
Adrenaline Drive (Adorenarin doraibu). My personal favorite. Aptly named, the film takes you on a ride from scene to scene, never quite letting on what will happen next. Best described as a gangster film turned romantic comedy, the plot centers around two awkwardly shy individuals and a case of yakuza money. This film has an understated comedy compared to the others, with more dramatic elements. Adrenaline Drive has a few ill-explained plot points, awkward genre switching, and cliché situations (like a She’s All That style makeover scene)… but it also contains a good amount of action, suspense, and adventure for such a small budget. It also grants a long wish list of everything you could ever hope to see in one movie (like a She’s All That style makeover scene). One of my favorite scenes features literal money laundering, in which you can see some cash spin dry. This is a film that I can (and have) watched twice in a row or even multiple times in a week. It’s never quite as good as the first time (when you have no idea what’s gonna happen), but the characters are so endearing and the situations so riveting that it glues me to the screen every time.
Sometimes the problem with watching Japanese films is that, well, they’re Japanese. Social elements are often lost in translation. But sometimes downright translation is lost. This was the case for me and Yaguchi’s latest film Happy Flight. The DVD (which was cleverly procured via the internets and came from Australia) boasts English and Chinese subtitles, but it’s all a clever ruse. The translation read like they put the entire script through Babel Fish and then dropped half of every sentence. (Apparently what actually happened was they translated the chinese translation –poorly– and voila! English subtitles). It’s impossible to understand. The film would be better understood (and less distracting) after removing the subtitles. Better, but not by much. I couldn’t finish it. I watched just enough to get that it’s about airplanes, but I also got this from the cover. I’m actually super disappointed; I was really looking forward to seeing more from this director.
There’s some debate out there as to whether Shinobu Yaguchi is an auteur or a hack. I side with the prior. Mostly because I have a soft spot for his charmingly awkward heroes and strange twisting plots, but also because I truly believe his films share and highlight his unique artistic voice. Regardless, Yaguchi is a damn fine filmmaker and if you’re ever lucky enough to come across a copy of any of his films (with reasonably good subtitles –or not, you know, if you understand Japanese) you should watch it. And love it.