Girls go for bad, abusive guys, while relegating nice, decent ones to the dreaded “friend zone”: A misogynistic lie or the cold, hard truth? Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Wolf Girl and Black Prince” seems to say the latter, starting with its premise. A naive, socially inept high school girl agrees to become the “dog” of a handsome, arrogant schoolmate if he pretends to be her boyfriend. That is, she has to do exactly as he says, doggy tricks included, and in return he will hang out with her in front of her friends — the school’s “cool girl” clique. How retrograde is that?

Based on a best-selling girls’ comic by Ayuko Hatta, the film is actually anything but, though it is truthful about the pitfalls and peculiarities of teenage social dynamics, as well as the volatile mix of pride, loneliness and, yes, decency that dwell in an adolescent ikemen (handsome guy).

As usual with local romantic dramas, the film is also something of a fantasy, from the heroine’s upscale private high school to its story of romance blooming from a phony, horribly awkward start. But the story of Cinderella is also a stretch, is it not?

Wolf Girl and Black Prince (Okami Shojo to Kuro Oji)
Run Time 116 mins
Language Japanese
Opens MAY 28

Erika Shinohara (Fumi Nikaido) is a first-year high school student clinging to the edge of the above-mentioned clique, when her new pals start chatting about their boyfriends — and she lies so as not to be left out. When they press her for photographic evidence, she goes to Shibuya with her one real friend, the straight-talking Ayumi (Mugi Kadowaki), and snaps a candid shot of a good-looking guy. Her clique is suitably impressed and Erika is relieved, until the photo’s subject, Kyoya Sata (Kento Yamazaki), shows up at school — and she begs him to fake a relationship so she doesn’t lose face. He agrees, with the previously stated condition.

From here, the story could have entered the familiar territory of adolescent ijime (bullying), which can be found in both dozens of seishun eiga (youth movies) and all-too-many newspaper headlines. In fact, Kamiya (Nobuyuki Suzuki), Kyoya’s similarly looks-advantaged friend, proposes the sort of caddish exploitation Erika has unwittingly signed up for.

Fortunately for her, Kyoya goes out of his way to play his BF role, including a real date to give her more photographic proof for her still-suspicious friends. Relief and gratitude turn into affection — and something more, despite his sneers and put-downs. But even when Erika goes to his spacious apartment to nurse him through a bout of fever (with mom and dad nowhere in sight), he keeps up his front of scorn and indifference. This teenaged god, we see, grew up lonely — and finds it hard to trust anyone, especially girls who think he is perfection on two legs.

In a three-decade career that ranges from indie award winners to commercial hits, Hiroki has become known for drawing career-peak performances from his lead actresses, while Nikaido is a formidably talented chameleon who can make any role indelibly her own. With long traveling shots and extended close-ups, Hiroki tests her to the limit and Nikaido rises to the challenge, going beyond surface comic desperation to raw vulnerability and heart-stricken pain. I thought my own memories of teenage love agony were safely buried; Nikaido’s bravura performance proved me wrong.

As Kyoya, Yamazaki plays the superior, condescending jerk while revealing enough of the character’s carefully hidden nice-guy side to keep him from becoming totally despicable — a neat balancing trick. But Kyoya has to contend with Ryo Yoshizawa’s Kusakabe, a shy, sincere classmate who offers Erika love without the slights, and his older sister Reika (Nanao), a tough-minded beauty who opens Erika’s eyes to certain truths about her brother and the romantic game.

Will he wake up one day and find the Wolf Girl no longer at his door?

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.