Film / Reviews

Girls in the Psychic Club: Idols attempt ESP in odd sci-fi mockumentary

by Mark Schilling

Nobuhiro Yamashita has never been one to do the obvious, which in his case would have meant churning out more charmingly offbeat teen comedies like his 2005 breakout “Linda Linda Linda.” Instead Yamashita stretched himself with films like “Matsugane Ransha Jiken (The Matsugane Potshot Affair)” from 2006, which mixed brutal violence with wacky gags, and “My Back Pages” (2011), a nearly humor-free drama about reporters covering student radicals in the 1960s and ’70s.

Recently, however, Yamashita has returned to the dry deadpan comedy of his early films. But as funny as “Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium)” was — in ways typically Yamashita — it was also an experiment in form, with the director developing the story from 30-second commercials he made for the Music On! TV channel starring former AKB48 pop star Atsuko Maeda.

A similar hash-it-out-as-you-go concept is at work in Yamashita’s latest film, “Chonoryoku Kenkyubu no 3-nin (Girls in the Psychic Club).” It’s a mockumentary about the making of a sci-fi/fantasy teen drama starring three members of Nogizaka46 (AKB48’s official “rival group”) and is based on the “City Lights” manga series by Hiroyuki Ohashi.

Chonoryoku Kenkyubu no 3-nin (Girls in the Psychic Club)
Rating
Director Nobuhiro Yamashita
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese

The start of this unusual project was a music video Yamashita shot in February 2013 with the cooperation of Yasushi Akimoto, the founding father of Nogizaka46 and AKB48. As part of the video shoot Yamashita held an audition to select three group members for his film project.

After a tortured development process, Yamashita decided to frame the sci-fi film — using a script by famed “pink film” (erotic film) director Shinji Imaoka — with a fake documentary about the film shoot, scripted by frequent collaborator Kosuke Mukai. The result is an amalgam of actors’ workshop and reality show with enough revealing and amusing bits to sustain interest, though I couldn’t help thinking that the sci-fi/fantasy film might have been stronger if it stood alone, with the mockumentary as a DVD extra, or vice versa.

Somewhat deviously, Yamashita kept his chosen trio in the dark about some of his intentions, to get at their real personalities, not their idol images or their emoting to his camera. “I wanted to understand why they are doing this idol gig,” Yamashita is quoted as saying in a program for the film. More interesting to me, as an occasional visitor to film sets, is how Yamashita and his crew (including the actors impersonating crew members) turn the story’s flimsy premise, with three amateurs in the lead roles, into a watchable film.

Our three heroines are Ikuko (Erika Ikuta), the title club’s nerdy leader, Ryoko (Manatsu Akimoto) and Azumi (Nanami Hashimoto), an older-sister sort who plays the peacemaker.

We soon discover that all three girls are duds at the paranormal, but they doggedly persist until one day they spot Mori (Masahiro Usui), a tall male classmate with oddly piercing eyes, calmly bend a spoon while simply holding it.

Overjoyed to find someone capable of psychokinesis, they draft the bemused Mori into their club. He soon demonstrates a scary ability to read other people’s minds, and tells the girls he possesses this and other talents because he is a space alien. They decide, without asking him, that he wants to return to his home planet. But how to send him?

So far, so silly. But not to Yamashita, who calmly drills his three tyros in the basics of acting. And not to the girls either, who realize that this is a precious (if ridiculous) chance to segue from the fleeting bubble of idoldom into more substantial showbiz careers. They try to be model acting students, but insecurities arise and, inevitably, tears flow.

One standout is Akimoto, who struggles with her scenes in the film. In a scripted confrontation with a group of mocking yanki (delinquent) girls, she looks less than convincingly angry in take after failed take until, at Yamashita’s urging, two girls playing the yankis trash talk Akimoto — not Ikuko, her character. Despite her antagonists’ attempt to tear her and the whole idol profession to shreds, Akimoto stoutly holds her ground and later delivers the sort of full-bore performance Yamashita is asking for.

Fake documentary or not, this sequence and others carry an emotional charge, as well as opening fascinating windows into the methods of one of Japan’s most consistently interesting filmmakers. And Nogizaka46 fans will love the film since it presents three of their favorites as actual human beings, without scraping away their idol sheen, which is the box-office point of the entire exercise.


Fun fact: Manatsu Akimoto, Erika Ikuta and Nanami Hashimoto appear in the music video for “Kimi no Na wa Kibo (Your Name Is Hope),” the theme song to “Chonoryoku Kenkyubu no 3-nin (Girls in the Psychic Club).” Released in March 2013, it debuted at No. 1 on the Oricon Singles Chart and sold 242,000 copies, the most of any of the group’s singles to date