‘Uta Tama’

Punks and straights sing together and in (almost) perfect harmony

by Mark Schilling

The maxim from Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun” applies especially to the movie business. “Swing Girls,” a 2004 smash about a high-school girls swing band, begat “Hula Girls,” a 2006 hit about a hula dance troupe in a 1960s mining town, which begat “Kanki no Uta (Ode to Joy),” a new film about two housewife chorus groups that, through a scheduling error, end up sharing the same stage.

All right, I’m using the Biblical “begat” ironically, but these and other Japanese films about musical zeros who become audience-conquering heroes share a strong family resemblance.

This subgenre is hardly unknown in the West, but Hollywood and European filmmakers tend to find their musical heroes in rock bands (“The Commitments,” “The Leningrad Cowboys”) or singers (“Rose,” “Glitter”), not schoolgirls making like Benny Goodman or housewives warbling Beethoven.

Maoko Tanaka’s “Uta Tama (The Soul of Song)” is yet another musical “begat,” being about a teen chorus group from a small Hokkaido town that is trying to win a big regional competition. Think “Swing Girls” minus the instruments.

Uta Tama
Director Maoko Tanaka
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Japanese

But whereas Shinobu Yaguchi’s hit served up large helpings of frothy, surreal comedy together with its guts-for-glory dramatic main course, “Uta Tama” is closer to a straight-ahead seishun eiga (youth film), complete with life-changing encounters, make-or-break crises and moral lessons learned.

The film stirs a few fresh ingredients into its formulaic stew, however, including a chorus group of snarling, swaggering punks. This, on the face of it, is ridiculous, since Japanese movie punks are not exactly known for their group harmonizing — gang brawls being more their style.

But the punk chorus in “Uta Tama” has a surprisingly soulful sound — derived more from smooth R&B than the raucous choir in “Sister Act” — that sets them apart from the average straight-arrow chorale. They may strut cartoonishly on stage, but vocally they are the real, undubbed deal.

The film’s focus, however, is the un-punkish Kasumi Ogino (Kaho), the leader of the soprano section in a high-school girls’ chorus, who is already a musical legend in her own mind. If “American Idol” held an audition in Hokkaido, she’d be the first in line.

One day Jun’ichi (Hideo Ishiguro), a student cameraman she kind of likes, snaps photos of her with her mouth gaping open in song — a pose that reminds him of an egg-laying fish he saw in a nature documentary. He publishes the funny (to him) pics in the student paper — and poor Kasumi is so humiliated she can barely sing beyond a clenched-jaw whisper.

Her condition soon comes to the attention of her chorus mates — as well as Rena (Sayuri Iwata), the snarky leader of the school’s cool-girl clique, who slips Kasumi the verbal knife about her mousy vocalizing. Her confidence shattered, Kasumi decides to quit and the group’s teacher, Ms. Senuma (Hiroko Yakushimaru), accepts her resignation. “It’s your life, Ms. Ogino,” she shrugs. Kasumi decides to stay for the big summer chorus contest — then say sayonara to singing forever.

First, though, she encounters the above-mentioned punks, who are also practicing for the contest. When their frizzy-haired leader, Hiroshi (Gori), hears her sing — or rather mumble — he explodes. “Your singing is a sacrilege against music,” he says.

Kasumi listens to Hiroshi and his gang deliver a fiery rendition of the 1980s pop icon Yutaka Osaki tune “15 no Yoru” (Night of 15) — and a bulb flashes on in her head. This is singing! But she has a few epiphanies yet to go before she truly finds her groove.

Kaho, the fresh-faced teen sensation of the moment who starred in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s drama “Tennen Kokkeko (A Gentle Breeze in the Village)” in 2007, is a refreshingly natural, charmingly spacey presence as Kasumi. But after she sees the musical light, she becomes a shade or two annoying and cloying, like a dieter who has just lost 10 kilos and insists on telling everyone how she did it.

The big chorus competition, though, is soul stirring, with everyone, punks and straights alike, singing their hearts out. “Uta Tama” finally lives up to its title.