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‘Sundome’

Cartoonish take on adolescence

by Mark Schilling

Straight-to-video films, locally called “V Cinema,” launched the careers of some of the most important directors of the New Wave of the 1990s, including Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Rokuro Mochizuki.

They were limited to genre pics — yakuza, horror and erotic thrillers being among the most popular — but they were also allowed to subvert or explode genre conventions.

By now, however, the first-generation of V Cinema maestros have moved on — Miike to make mannered, over-stuffed entertainment for the multiplexes, while their replacements are largely journeymen like Daigo Udagawa, the director of the new teen comedy “Sundome (Stop It, You!).”

V Cinema’s decline as a market force and the rise of digital cinema as an industry entree for newcomers are two big reasons, but there are also others, as “Sundome” illustrates.

As the Japanese film business becomes more competitive — with hundreds more films being made annually than there are screens to show them — the remaining V Cinema companies are less inclined to turn a madman like Miike loose with a camera and crew, and more likely to rely on proven formulas. Just as in V Cinema’s heyday in the mid-1990s, many of these films get limited theatrical runs before appearing on the video shelves. But unlike the old days, when V Cinema yakuza pics played in sleazy Kabukicho theaters to people who looked a lot like the low-lifes on the screen, the film under review is opening in an artier venue — Uplink Factory in Shibuya — and is targeting a younger, geekier audience.

“Sundome” has much in common with pinku (“pink” or softcore porn) films, especially in its fetishistic eroticism and raunchy sense of humor. But unlike the better pinku films, which explore Eros with an unfettered imagination (Shinji Imaoka’s cracked masterpiece “Ojisan Tengoku [Uncle's Paradise]” being an excellent example), “Sundome” is content to illustrate its source, a popular manga by Kazuto Okada that gets its laughs from an adolescent male’s excruciating rite of erotic passage.

By “illustrate” I mean that the cast, beginning with Atsushi Ninomiya as the hugely frustrated hero, behave as much as possible like the manga originals, which involves much exaggerated posing, moaning, howling and other hormone-driven behavior. I can laugh myself hoarse at moronic, cartoony humor (blame a childhood fixation on The Three Stooges), but “Sundome” ‘s brand, too strident and one-note, left me mostly stone-faced. Nonetheless, funny bits emerged from the blare.

Ninomiya plays Hideo Aiba, a 16-year-old boy who is nice, average — and totally ignored by his classmates. A running joke is the inability of anybody, including his teacher, to remember his name. His only sexual release is frantic masturbation, bouncing in his chair in his room, as his mother and younger brother listen, bemused in the kitchen below by the thudding on the ceiling. One day a new girl joins the class — the big-eyed, cute-faced, brain-meltingly hot Kurumi (Akane Suzuki) — and decides to befriend Aiba, who reacts with a paralyzing combination of joy, embarrassment and lust. Kurumi tells the poor sap that her friendship — with various sexual privileges attached — comes with one condition: he has to stopping dating Rosy Palm.

He agrees and despite his nightly battles with temptation, sticks to his vow. Keeping her side of the bargain, Kurumi joins his Romantics Club — four geeks who are into various sorts of fantasy entertainment, while following club rules against sex and girlfriends. No, they aren’t gay, just cases of arrested development. Then another classmate, the curvaceous Kyoko (Kana Tsugihara) takes an interest in Aiba — and seems ready to relieve him of his virgin state. But first she has to fend off a jealous Kurumi.

Director Udagawa has fun undermining the formulas of the seishun eiga (“youth film”), beginning with the driven-snow purity of the typical heroine. Both Suzuki and Tsugihara have the look and attitude, to paraphrase Mae West, of snow that has drifted. In their sailor-dress uniforms they look less like schoolgirls than costumed sex-fantasy club hostesses, with Suzuki showing skin that, in any ordinary Japanese high school, would get her sent straight to the principal’s office (Tsugihara is also provocative, though less for her dress sense than her natural attributes.)

Their victim accordingly starts to look less like a love-sick schoolboy than a client in a kinky role-playing game. As Aiba, Ninomiya screams, flails and otherwise does his strenuous best to impersonate a cartoon character in sexual agony, but as his relationship with his two temptresses progresses, he shows signs of development, if not quite maturity. But a Jim Carrey (that genius of moronic comedy) he is not.

I used to think the pinku formula of one simulated sex scene every 10 minutes or so to be mindlessly arbitrary, but after seeing “Sundome” I’m starting to understand its advantages. Better fakey, mechanical cinematic sex than 90 minutes of comic wankery, no? Especially in a movie that wants to be pink — but never gets past rose.