Some actors can transcend whatever crappy movie they happen to be in. Christopher Walken, for example, was notorious for appearing in straight-to-video sludge but also for making his scenes watchable in that weird, cool Walken way. He created a world oblivious to the depressing reality around him.
Riko Narumi, though not a weird teenager, has some of that same ability. Now 17, with nearly a decade of acting experience behind her, she has long been proclaimed a prodigy — Japan’s own underage answer to Meryl Streep.
Which isn’t fair to Narumi, since with a few exceptions, such as Jun Ichikawa’s excellent, under-appreciated teen drama “Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata” (“How to Become Myself,” 2007), her TV dramas and films haven’t forced her to stretch a la Streep. Instead she is usually asked to play variations of the girl genius, be it at piano (“Shindo,” 2007), kendo (“Bushido Sixteen,” 2010) or, as in her latest film “Shodo Girls — Watashitachi no Koshien” (Calligraphy Girls — Our Koshien), Japanese calligraphy.
Unlike nearly every Japanese teen idol who has ever existed, Narumi doesn’t do cute or pure or teary-eyed, at least not primarily. Instead, she does nerdily serious and dark, for comedy or drama, or, as in “Shodo Girls,” both. And she does it well, with discipline and precision, while never descending to the usual teen- idol mugging. Yes, she does the same baleful stare in film after film, bulging her big, expressive eyes as though she could shoot death rays — but for dramatic reason, not mannered effect.
She is the only good thing in Ryuichi Inomata’s “Shodo Girls,” which is a TV special done formulaically large, with no spark of originality or wit. It’s hard to say she is wasted, though, since she brings her usual intensity to the part, especially when smashing a big, heavy fude (calligraphy brush) down on a huge sheet of paper and dragging it about as though her life depended on it.
She plays Satoko, a third-year student at a high school in a declining Shikoku factory town. The daughter of a strict calligraphy master, Satoko has been practicing calligraphy since she was big enough to hold a brush. When Kana (Nanami Sakuraba), a fellow member of the school’s calligraphy club, tries to excite her about winning the annual club championship in a big inter-high-school tournament, she can hardly be bothered. Her only concern is the individual trophy; her team, a collection of misfits and losers (with the glaring exception of the preternaturally chirpy Kana), barely exists in her eyes.
This, inevitably, is the set up for Satoko’s big change of heart from selfish, lonely sourpuss to happy team player. Though based on the exploits of an actual calligraphy team from a Shikoku high school, the story is a genre staple that scriptwriter Yuko Nagata turns into an endless procession of over-hyped cliches. I didn’t observe the team’s struggles so much as relive them in an eternity of boredom, dying a little with each tick of the clock. (I spent most of my own high school career in a similar state — so in that sense the film is realistic.)
The catalyst for change is a new club adviser, Mr. Ikezawa (Nobuaki Kaneko), who has an unkempt look and don’t-care attitude — but also has an unconventional idea for reviving the fortunes of the club: calligraphy as performance. That is, instead of stolidly practicing strokes in the club room, like the straight-arrow Satoko, he takes a big sheet of paper outside and, as scores of students look on, energetically splashes ink about to the accompaniment of bombastic music. Voila! Calligraphy is boring no more!
Satoko, a stick-in-the-mud, hates the idea, but her teammates, especially the cute, eager-beaver Kiyomi (Mitsuki Takahata) love it. And not because the handsome Ikezawa has swept her off her feet — Kiyomi sees a splashy performance as a way to revive the fortunes of a dying shopping arcade where her heart-of-gold dad runs a failing stationary store. Cue the violins.
From here one can easily imagine how the various plot threads will play out, since no imagination was used to develop them. Not a melodramatic trick is missed, from the fire that destroys the workshop of an old papermaker, as he sobs disconsolately, to the fate of the pretty, tragic Mio (Rio Yamashita), Satoko’s one real rival, who drops out of school to support her ailing mother. Cue the violins again.
The TV-trained Inomata, whose one previous feature was the animal tear-jerker “Mari to Koinu Monogatari” (“The Story of Mari and the Puppy,” 2009), tries to enliven the proceedings with humor, but his big idea of a joke is ink splashed across the faces of all and sundry, again and again, ad infinitum.
He also has Narumi take a pratfall into a large plastic tub, which is supposed to humanize her character — but only made me feel sympathy for the actress. Narumi being Narumi, she never lets on that the gag — and the film — are embarrassments.