The seishun eiga or “youth film” is one Japanese genre that doesn’t travel well abroad. With only a few exceptions, these films assume a familiarity with the insular world of the Japanese high school (or, once in a while, junior high school) that outlanders are unlikely to possess. They also follow certain conventions, such as starry-eyed heroines with unrequited crushes on indifferent or abusive guys, that don’t translate smoothly to London or Los Angeles.
Even so, seishun eiga offer the sort of clear window into Japan’s national culture, society and psyche that other, more internationally popular, genres don’t. Most Japanese survived high school; relatively few joined yakuza gangs.
Among the purest recent examples of the genre is “Yell for the Blue Sky,” a drama of teen romance and gaman (perseverance) that plays as though director Takahiro Miki and scriptwriter Yukiko Mochiji decided to go full-bore on formulas, save the one about a central character coming down with a fatal disease. The film is, in fact, an adaptation of Kazune Kawahara’s hit manga, which has sold more than 3.4 million paperback copies since its first appearance in Margaret, a girl’s manga magazine, in 2008.
The heroine, first-year high school student Tsubasa Ono (Tao Tsuchiya), is that genre standard: a shy girl who can barely spit out her own name in a classroom jiko shōkai (self-introduction), but is stubbornly determined to play trumpet in the school’s prize-winning brass band.
Her inspiration: seeing, as a child, a TV broadcast of a lone trumpeter playing against a blue sky in support of the school’s baseball team, then competing in the national high school tournament at Kobe’s famed Koshien stadium. A new catcher for the team, Daisuke Yamada (Ryoma Takeuchi), tells Tsubasa he saw the same broadcast — and vows to not only back her in her quest, but also to return with his teammates to Koshien. Their dream: Tsubasa playing a rousing trumpet solo as Daisuke steps up to the plate.
Needless to say, Tsubasa falls hard for this tall, handsome guy with the friendly grin, but many obstacles block her path to musical glory and romantic bliss, beginning with the band’s hard-nosed director (Juri Ueno), who has little use for her dithering and fretting, and the all-business leader of the trumpet section (Shono Hayama), who outs her when, in fear of screwing up, she fakes playing at a concert.
Meanwhile, Daisuke, who is undergoing his own tribulations on the field, decides that he needs to concentrate on his game to the exclusion of all else, including his something-more-than-a-friendship with Tsubasa.
The poor girl is so repeatedly and thoroughly thwarted and crushed that, instead of focusing on the gauzy fantasies the genre so often dishes up, I began to search for comparisons among the Western classics of the “high school hell” film. “Yell for the Blue Sky,” however, is no “Heathers,” let alone “Carrie.” For one thing, Tsubasa never lacks for allies, including her bubbly best friend Himari (Airi Matsui). For another, Daisuke is fully her equal in suffering — and sympathizes with her struggles, however firmly he relegates her to the friend zone.
As Tsubasa, Tsuchiya does dewy-eyed, puppy-doggish innocence to perfection, though with 13 screen credits to date, starting with her debut in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 “Tokyo Sonata,” she’s hardly a newcomer. She brings an edge to Tsubasa’s pain and a knowingness to her later, tested-by-fire self that speak of real acting, not typical idol-star emoting.
Not to say that “Yell for the Blue Sky” breaks fresh ground — it firmly treads a familiar path to a predictable climax — yet I found myself rather enjoying it. But that was also the day I stopped in the nearby McDonald’s for a cheeseburger and shake. Call it comfort cinema.