Manga road runner sprints to big screen

by Mark Schilling

Ekiden — marathon relay races — may not be unique to Japan, but the sport has become uniquely popular here, with the biggest races, such as the Hakone Ekiden for university teams, garnering Olympic-like media attention and TV ratings.

So it’s no surprise that “Naoko,” the latest in a long line of Japanese battle-to-glory sports movies, should be about a high-school Ekiden team, from a fictional island in Nagasaki Prefecture.

Remember “Hoosiers,” the 1986 David Anspaugh film about a team from Nowheresville, Indiana gutting their way to the state finals with Gene Hackman as the rough-edged coach? It’s the same idea. Only this time the coach is Tsurube Shofukutei, the jolly, earthy, massively out-of-shape comedian, and the team’s star runner is played by Haruma Miura, who looks like a manga artist’s impossibly beautiful dream of an athlete even though he can run like the real, blazing-fast deal.

Director Tomoyuki Furumaya
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Japanese

The film’s story, however, centers on the title character, Naoko Shinomiya, the team’s new co-manager. She is played by Juri Ueno, a bigger marquee name than Miura, whose credits include her 2004 breakthrough film “Swing Girls” and the 2006 hit TV drama “Nodame Cantabile.” This character is also the focus of the manga on which the film is based, which ran in “Big Comic Spirits” magazine from 1994 to 2001.

This makes “Naoko” a first of sorts, since sports movies — “Hoosiers” included — never revolve around the guys and girls who hand out the towels and bottled water. Those people are instead nearly always used as dorky comic relief.

But Naoko has a back story that sets her apart. When she first visited the island as a 12-year-old girl with her parents, she fell off the fishing boat taking her to port and the ship’s captain drowned while rescuing her. She too took the disastrous plunge because she was distracted by the sight of a boy running on shore: Yusuke, the captain’s son. The boy is devastated by his father’s death — and blames Naoko for it. Six years later, in Tokyo, she sees Yusuke (Miura) again — now an elite runner with Olympics prospects and reintroduces herself. He says he is no longer angry, but she doesn’t believe him, and for good reason.

Through a series of improbable, if typically manga-esque, plot twists, she finds herself the new co-manager of Yusuke’s team, which is preparing for the Nagasaki high-school ekiden. Yusuke clearly resents her presence, but with the support of the avuncular, unconventional coach (Shofukutei) she plugs on.

In a Hollywood movie, the dramatic arc would come from the budding romance of Naoko and Yusuke, but in “Naoko” that arc flatlines early on. Instead of the bloom of young love, the story revolves around Naoko’s attempts to win Yusuke’s forgiveness, symbolized by her passing him a bottle of water — and him accepting it. In her first, freelance attempt to hand him water during a race, he refused it — and lost. Now that she is his manager — an official water giver, so to speak — will his attitude change?

Director Tomoyuki Furumaya beefs up this thinnish premise with sub-plots, including the portly coach’s health crises, the struggles of the team’s weakest runner and the rivalry between Yusuke and the pony-tailed ace of Nagasaki ekiden’s top-ranked team. But the relationship of the two principals stays static and standoffish, with Yusuke loping effortlessly ahead of his teammates like a young god, as Naoko looks on, her lovely brow furrowed, wondering how to chip away at his shell.

Furumaya films the big race — staged as Naoko’s final chance for closure — as a series of manga panels, complete with cartoony running styles and corny monologues from the runners (“Now show them you can run!” etc.) Some of the running sequences, particularly the duel between Yusuke and his rival, are dynamic and lyrical. The climax, though, feels preordained and flat — we’ve seen too early and too clearly what is coming.

Ueno plays Naoko with an appealing dedication — even her running is passionately expressive — but she can’t effectively widen her narrow role. My solution? Switch the sexes of the two principals, but let Ueno’s character keep her basic dilemma. An ace runner in a race with, not just her rivals, but a demon from her own past? Now that sounds like a movie.