Female ambition, friendship and rivalry can, mixed together, make for a potent cinematic brew. “All About Eve” is one well-known example, though the relationship between Bette Davis’ insecure middle-aged actress and Anne Baxter’s worshipful, secretly scheming acolyte can hardly be called “friendship.”
Shosuke Kaneko’s “Pride” and Koichi Inoue’s “Kanna-san Daiseiko Desu!” (“Kanna’s Big Success!”) may have the same basic “girls, be ambitious” message, but their takes on it are totally different.
“Kanna-san,” stars supermodel Yu Yamada as the title character — a ditz who becomes a stunning beauty through the miracle of plastic surgery. The script, by Yuko Matsuda, is based on a Yumiko Suzuki comic that was also the source of the 2007 hit Korean comedy “200 Pounds Beauty.” The Japanese film is not a remake, but a reworking of the comic, starting with an animated sequence in which a plain, fat, morose Kanna drudges away as a seamstress in a factory.
Then, having somehow scraped up the money for a radical makeover, she re-emerges as a glamour girl in fab frocks, but with no more idea of how to behave in her beautiful new skin than a child playing dressup in her mother’s clothes. She stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a major garment maker, where she develops a huge crush on a nice-guy salaryman (Akira Nagata) and finds an unlikely ally in a naturally ravishing designer (Aoi Nakabeppu).
The story is a trifle — revolving as it does around Kanna’s quest to win the salaryman’s heart and become a successful designer herself, with the aid of a still plain, fat former coworker (Shizuyo Yamazaki) — with nearly everyone mugging away ferociously.
Yamada, while no actress, is well cast for the title role. With her big, long-lashed eyes, her wide, pretty mouth and perfect proportions, she is the ideal woman as defined by a girls’ comic — or a frog girl longing to be a princess. Also, on screen, Yamada is a likable, down-to-earth sort — the opposite of the diva-esque supermodel stereotype.
The film’s depictions of the fashion world, though cartoony, have an insider’s familiarity, as well as a sassy, visual flair. Yamada always looks fabulous, especially when she is striding down a runway, less a princess than a supremely confident pro.
Taking itself far more seriously, “Pride” depicts the rivalry of two aspiring opera singers: the poor and fiercely ambitious Moe (Hikari Mitsushima) and the rich and privileged Shio (Stephanie). These two first meet when Moe comes to clean Shio’s palace of a house and gushes with gratitude when Shio offers her a free ticket to the opera.
Then Moe and Shio end up competing in a contest for an opera scholarship in Italy. Sweet little Moe reveals her vicious side with a cutting remark that literally drops Shio to her knees. Then, through a set of circumstances that could have been cribbed from a Davis melodrama, Moe and Shio end up working at the same posh Ginza club, the former as a hardworking hostess, the latter as a newly impoverished singer.
Shio’s romantic interests include the son (Dai Watanabe) of the club’s mama (Reiko Takashima), a hot-blooded song composer who may wear drag as the club pianist (“The customers expect to see a woman doing this,” he explains unconvincingly), but longs to write a hit for her; and a filthy-rich music company executive (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) who sees her as the ideal bride — but strictly as a business proposition. Meanwhile, Moe angles for a chance to grab the spotlight from Shio.
Kaneko, fresh from his box-office triumph with the “Death Note” films, doesn’t tell this story of female rivalry in simplistic black and white. Both women, we see, have terrific singing chops and fiercely competitive spirits, as well as ample supplies of venom. Instead of a war of good vs. evil , we want to see a dueling duet — think the “American Idol” finale comes to Japan — and Kaneko duly obliges.
As Moe, Mitsushima is a spitfire whose flares of diva ego verge on Davis-esque camp, but when she turns nasty, she’s a delight to watch. Stephanie, a half-Japanese, half-American pop singer making her first screen appearance, is both statuesque and stiff as Shio, but when her temper flares, she gives as good as she gets.
In other words, folks, buckle your seat belts, “Pride” is one deliciously bumpy ride.