Puberty is a time of physical changes that range from the wondrous to the excruciating, but once accomplished are soon forgotten. The beard that greets you in the mirror, which once seemed miraculous and strange, is now just one more morning chore.
As Daigo Matsui’s seishun (adolescence) drama “Sweet Poolside” reminds us, the emotional upheavals that accompany those changes can cut deep and linger long, especially when you stand out from your peers.
The hero, baby-faced Toshihiko Ota (Kenta Suga), suffers agonies of locker-room embarrassment over his lack of pubic hair. Meanwhile, a girl on his high school swim team, Ayako Goto (Yuiko Kariya), is teased for being freakishly hirsute (though, thankfully, her angelic face is smooth).
Based on a comic by Shuzo Oshimi that was first serialized in Shukan Young Magazine in 2004, the film treats Toshihiko and Ayako’s dilemmas more seriously than comically, though its sense of humor can be manga-esque (i.e., slapstick) in the extreme.
Found changing into his swimsuit beneath the canopy of a huge towel, poor Toshihiko is dragged, naked and hairless, by a bigger upperclassman before the curious gaze of his teammates. Laughing already?
Fans of Matsui’s absurdist slacker comedy “Afro Tanaka” and hormonally charged high school comedy “Danshi Kokosei no Nichijo (Daily Lives of High School Boys)” may get the impression, from this opening scene that “Sweet Poolside” will be more of the wacky same. But the story is told in retrospect from Toshihiko’s point of view and is accordingly suffused with a nostalgia that is poignant and erotic, as well as risibly painful.
Despite their seemingly opposite dilemmas, Toshihiko and Ayako share an outsider’s perspective, so it’s not totally surprising when Ayako approaches Toshihiko with an unusual request: Could he shave the hair from her forearms? It’s a task she claims she can’t do well herself and ,seeing that she means what she says, Toshihiko reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself under a bridge by a quiet stream, nervously lathering shaving cream on the arm of a girl he barely knows and marveling at the sensation (“She’s really warm,” he thinks). She likes the result and they begin meeting weekly to shave more unsightly hair, each time venturing a bit farther into the danger zone, at least where Toshihiko’s impulses are concerned.
If this were all the film offered, “Sweet Poolside” would be a funny/lyrical essay on erotic awakening, with Toshihiko helplessly imagining forbidden delights, while trying desperately not to end his idyll with a clumsy razor cut. But the movie still has an hour to run and Matsui, who also wrote the script, fills the time with hypercharged melodrama — the flip side of the manga-esque aesthetic. From peach-fuzzed comic foil, Toshihiko becomes a wild-eyed wreaker of destruction, seeking his own doom.
How he reaches this disturbed state remains something of a mystery, since his afflictions are of the usual seishun sort. He becomes obsessed with Ayako — even carefully saving her shaved hair — and when she begins a shy flirtation with the teenage swim-club coach (Motoki Ochiai), Toshihiko senses his world starting to crumble, though Ayako tells him nothing. Then Sakashita (Moe Arai), a girl in his class who considers him a pet-cum-boyfriend, starts to have her suspicions about Toshihiko and Ayako and begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Ayako is dealing with problems bigger than hairy legs, beginning with a feckless single father (Go Riju) who can barely keep a roof over their heads.
The denouement of all this turmoil verges on the mad, rather than the tragic, though the earlier air of nostalgic reflection never entirely disappears. What is driving Toshihiko nuts, the films implies, is an eros which he longs for, but is not ready for — a contradiction that is crazy-making. This view of sex as a thing which upends male mental equilibrium is not unique to “Sweet Poolside:” In fact, it’s a long-established manga convention, with generations of cartoon guys bleeding from the nose when their horniness gets the better of them.
Matsui’s earlier films were fresh, dryly funny exercises in the absurd, but the ranting and raving in this one is over the top, and feels like dramatics for the sake of dramatics. Or perhaps my own adolescence was too boring and uneventful. If I’d spent my after-school hours shaving the legs of the prettiest girl in my class, instead of building up my courage to say hello to her in the hall, I might better relate to Toshihiko’s breakdown when it all slips away. And I still might be in smalltown USA, remembering.
Fun fact: Born in Kitakyushu in 1985, Daigo Matsui once dreamed of becoming a manga artist or comedian, but gave up both dreams after entering a theater troupe while he was still a college student. In 2006 he started his own, called Gekidan Gojigen.