‘Koko Debyu (High School Debut)’

Walking up an appetite for romance

by Mark Schilling

I was on my way to a screening of Tsutomu Hanabusa’s teen romcom “Koko Debut (High School Debut)” when the March 11 earthquake struck. Luckily, the Oedo subway train I was riding made it, slowly, to the next station and, instead of catching this adaptation of a hit girls’ comic by Kazune Kawahara, I ended up walking three hours home in the dark.

So when I finally saw the film on a DVD (press screenings were then being canceled right and left), I wanted it to justify the hike, if not the queasy feeling of impending doom in that rocking subway car. This had better be good.

When I found myself thoroughly enjoying this feather-light film, with everyone on screen behaving like manga characters, I first thought the disaster, and consequent stress, had softened my brain, somewhat the way Robert De Niro’s panic-attack-prone gang boss got weepy over TV commercials in “Analyze This.”

I saw it again yesterday in a less anxious frame of mind — and it was, if anything, even better. Hanabusa, who also made the excellent, if under-appreciated, 2008 comedy “Hansamu Sutsu (The Handsome Suit),” has cutely stylized every colorful frame and choreographed gesture, while viewing his gender-role-reversal story with a detachment just this side of coy and that side of mocking. Instead of an exercise in froufrou art direction and brittle irony, however, he has made a film that has the straightforward emotional appeal and uncluttered narrative drive of a fairy tale, or the frothy, finely wrought Hollywood comedies and musicals that gave the world a much-needed escape from that catastrophe of the 1930s: the Depression.

Haruna (Ito Ono), a star pitcher on her junior high softball team, enters high school with dreams of romance — but absolutely no idea of how to snag a guy. A sports nerd with zero social skills or fashion sense, she seems doomed to a lonely, loveless existence until a chance encounter with a dreamy if distant upperclassman, Yoh (Junpei Mizobata), gives her a brilliant idea. This epitome of cool, who checks off Haruna’s style sins with a casual authority, could tell her all she needs to know about appealing to the opposite sex!

Approaching him with an unromantic directness (actually, falling at him like a flying squirrel), she asks him to be her “coach” in romance and, after some hemming and hawing, he reluctantly agrees. There is one condition, he tells her sternly — she can never fall in love with him. Gazing at him with pop-eyed earnestness, she immediately agrees.

We know exactly where this is headed, don’t we? Which doesn’t spoil the fun, just as knowing that the prince isn’t going to chuck the glass slipper hardly ruins “Cinderella.”

Playing Haruna, newcomer Ono proves herself a gifted comedienne. Where the average 15-year-old model-turned-actress would go self-consciously cutesy with this role, Ono totally embraces Haruna’s childishly sincere, cluelessly unfashionable persona, but her seemingly force-of-nature performance is actually calibrated to the last millimeter. It’s not that she is screamingly funny in every scene, but her every bit of comic business — from her love-besotted stare at the ceiling to her fiercely determined delivery of a fastball — defines character as well as generates laughs.

As her “coach,” Mizobata is appropriately cold and unapproachable at the beginning, but gives us enough glimpses of Yoh’s unmasked personality to keep us from hating him — and make us understand why he and Haruna might have more than a “professional” relationship.

More manga-esque are Rina Aizawa as Yoh’s felinely sexy younger sister and Masaki Suda and Yuki Furukawa as his smoothly seductive pals, as well as Yuka Masuda as Haruna’s revenge-bent softball opponent and Rei Okamoto as her new friend/romantic rival. But each of these characters, no matter how brief their screen time, gets the same fine tuning. Good comedy is in the details — and Hanabusa has his own playful but precise way of making them right.

At the same time, he builds to a finale inspired by that Depression-era master of song-and-dance spectacle, Busby Berkeley, minus the music; after all, this is Japan, and couples in teen romcoms here, no matter how untethered from reality, rarely sing their hearts out to each other. But Haruna’s absolute dedication to her pursuit of love shines absurdly through, making “High School Debut” a triumph of not the will but the ganbare (go for broke) spirit. It’s a sweet, funny, natural energy source.