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The typical Japanese movie about the travails and triumphs of a high school club follows an upward arc, as the audience cheers on the heroes to their foregone triumph over setbacks and defeats. The actualities of how they become more accomplished swing musicians, as in “Swing Girls,” or choral singers, as in “Kuchibiru ni Uta Wo” (“Have a Song on Your Lips”), are sketched, but no one would ever call these films how-to guides.

Katsuyuki Motohiro’s “Maku ga Agaru (The Curtain Rises)” couldn’t be called that either. But this film about a high school drama club in a provincial town, based on a novel by theater director Oriza Hirata, makes the process of putting on a play — the artistic and personal growth of its young actors included — its centerpiece. The intricacies and intimacies of this process differ for every production, I suppose, but the script by Kohei Kiyasu, another theater director, has an extraordinary feeling of veracity in everything from the internal monologue of the uncertain club captain Saori (Kanako Momota) to the no-nonsense advice of its unofficial coach (Haru Kuroki) — a young teacher whose own once-brilliant acting career is on hiatus.

Also, the film expands beyond its “let’s put on a play” story to the more universal theme of human growth and change, and not only from adolescence to adulthood, but from inner doubt to positive action, from aspirations to accomplishments. Yes, it aims to uplift, as does every single film in this seishun eiga (youth films) subgenre, but it also doesn’t cheat. Every good thing that happens to the characters feels truly and at times painfully earned, not gifted by a happy-ending plot.

Maku ga Agaru (The Curtain Rises)
Rating
Director Katsuyuki Motohiro
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens March. 19

Saori, the captain, has been drafted into her leadership role and is not comfortable with it. She is pals with the other drama club seniors, including the ebullient Garuru (Reni Takagi), the steady-going Akemi (Ayaka Sasaki) and the sweet-tempered club “princess” Yukko (Shiori Tamai). Saori also recruits Nakanishi (Momoka Ariyasu), a talented transfer student who once belonged to the strongest local drama club. But the rumpled male club coach (Tsuyoshi Muro) is careless and clueless and the club itself looks destined for yet another defeat in the annual inter-school drama competition.

Then Ms. Yoshioka (Kuroki), a new teacher with nerd glasses and a brisk manner, offers the girls some sensible advice, and when they Google her, they learn she was a college drama star. Led by Saori, they beg her for help and she agrees to sit in on their rehearsals. Soon she is instructing them on the elements of acting and telling them they can go all the way to the nationals.

The five young leads, beginning with Momota as Saori, are members of the idol group Momoiro Clover Z, and their learning curve as actors overlapped with that of their characters. Director Katsuyuki Motohiro, whose past credits include the megahit “Odoru Daisosasen” (“Bayside Shakedown”) films, captures the energy and charm that has won the girls millions of fans, including performance scenes that have “YouTube viral hit” written all over them.

At the same time, Motohiro’s smoothly tracking camera views them from an objective middle-distance, portraying them as normal-enough kids working hard (if not always harmoniously) in pursuit of a common goal, while becoming more mature and confident, and less angsty. That is, he gives them respect in a way that is somehow touching. (Though as the parent of a former high-school drama club member, my view may be biased.)

The cement that holds the story together, however, is Kuroki’s Yoshioka. Only 24 at the time of filming, Kuroki had already amassed an impressive list of acting honors, including the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for best actress for her performance as a naive-but-perceptive maid in the Yoji Yamada family drama “Chiisai Ouchi” (“The Little House”). As Yoshioka, she watches her charges’ performances with the cool eyes of a pro while giving them tough-love coaching and inspiring pep talks with gruff-voiced authority. Naturally, the kids love her to death. She, and the film, are the real dramatic deal.


Fun fact: Momoiro Clover Z became embroiled in controversy when a photo of them posing in blackface with the veteran doo-wop ensemble Rats & Star (who have long used the problematic make-up as a trademark) went viral. But when the two groups appeared on the Fuji TV “Music Fair” show on March 7, their blackface segment had been cut — possibly the result of an online petition protesting it as discriminatory.

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