No one likes spoilers, right? But in some films a major plot twist comes so early that the choice is to either mention it or write an entire review consisting of little more than winks and nods. For example, in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Exchange Students” (“Tenkosei,” 1982) a teenage boy and girl — spoiler alert! — exchange bodies soon after the opening credits. Sorry if I’ve ruined it for you.
A similar dilemma attends to “Pink and Gray” (“Pinku to Gure”), Isao Yukisada’s ingeniously structured if thematically familiar film about three school friends that fame pulls apart. Heard this story before? You probably have, in its many variations, going back to the 1937 “A Star Is Born,” with Janet Gaynor as the farm girl on her way up in Tinseltown and Fredric March as the alcoholic star on his way down.
Based on pop idol Shigeaki Kato’s 2012 novel set in the Japanese showbiz world, “Pink and Gray” begins with the famous, handsome actor Rengo Shiraki (Yuto Nakajima) preparing to commit suicide in his high-rise apartment. Before inserting his neck into a noose, however, he leaves six “wills” in envelopes neatly arranged on the coffee table. His boyhood pal Daiki Kawata (Masaki Suda) bursts in, but too late. Which envelope will he choose?
Daiki’s fate would seem to hinge on this choice, and to some extent it does — and doesn’t. Suffice to say that the seed is planted for a switcheroo that will change our perception of the characters — and lift “Pink and Gray” above the run of local idol films, of which Yukisada has made his share, including the 2004 hit “Sekai no Chushin de, Ai o Sakebu” (Crying Out Love in the Center of the World).
First, though, the film delves into the pasts of Rengo and Daiki, who first meet as boys living in a faceless danchi (housing block) and, together with a cute neighborhood girl — called Sally for reasons unexplained — form a friendly triumvirate that survives into the turbulent years of adolescence.
While classmates in high school, Rengo, nicknamed “Gotch” in the film’s English subtitles, and Daiki, aka “Riba,” are scouted by a model agency and start working as extras. Then Gotch makes the leap to acting and, soon after, stardom, while the less-confident and, truth be told, less-talented Riba stews in the apartment they share. Desperate and out for revenge, he hits on Sally and lashes out at Gotch. The once-solid friendship between the two boys dissolves into mutual acrimony.
So far so typical, as show business stories go. Also, the envious Riba, storming and raging at his more successful pal, is not the most sympathetic character. And Sally is little more than a cipher.
But along comes the above-mentioned twist and — stop here if you are spoiler-allergic — the story gets rebooted from zero, with different actors in the three main roles. And the film, which was sinking from the weight of its own cliches, suddenly becomes more interesting.
Kudos to the three leads, especially real-life idol Yuto Nakajima of the boy band Hey! Say! Jump!, who is making his screen debut. Without going into details, they perform a 180-degree turn from their previous screen incarnations with aplomb. It’s as if Al Pacino were to play Michael in the first 30 minutes of “The Godfather” and then, without missing a beat, become Fredo.
The story, however, stays in the same entertainment world with the same character arcs. The hero, played by Nakajima, still suffers insecurities about his talent and purpose. His girlfriend (Yukino Kishii) is still defined almost entirely by her relationship with him. And the star (Yuya Yagira), who seemingly holds the key to all the mysteries, remains an enigma to the end.
“A Star Is Born” played its up-down drama to the hilt. “Pink and Gray” is finally neither here nor there. But it tells a certain truth loud and clear: Stars need luck and talent, variously defined. Friends are optional.