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Learning to drive is a rite of passage that more Japanese men appear to be avoiding: The number of male drivers has been falling every year since 2009. The number of women drivers, by contrast, has been rising. Reasons for the drop include the decline of the car as a male status symbol. Back in the day, young bucks would dream of picking up girls with their snazzy new sportster; now they’re more inclined to see owning a car as a hassle that begins with the lengthy, expensive process of getting a license.

So “Moriyamachu Driving School,” Keisuke Toyoshima’s quirky comedy about two former high school classmates who wind up in the same rural driving academy, has a retro feel to it, though the manga artist whose work inspired it, Keigo Shinzo, is all of 26. Yet the film points to a reality: Many young Japanese who feel a need to get behind the wheel sign up for driving boot camps out in the boonies, where they can get their licenses relatively quickly and cheaply. (My son was recently one of them.) The film’s focus, however, is on the goofy, good-hearted Kiyotaka Sato (Shuhei Nomura) and the cool, closed-off Todoroki (Kento Kaku).

The former is a college kid who goes about life his own sweet, oblivious way (think a young Jim Carrey with darker hair), though he has a sort of girlfriend, his cute classmate (Yukino Kishii). One day he tells her that he will get his driver’s license so that they can “go anywhere,” which sort of makes sense. Soon after, however, while Kiyotaka is riding his mamachari (commuter bicycle), he is knocked down unconscious by a car. The driver is Todoroki, an apprentice gangster serving as an unlicensed chauffeur for his scowling boss (Ken Mitsuishi).

Moriyamachu Driving School (Moriyamachu Kyoshujo)
Rating
Run Time 103 mins
Language Japanese
Opens JULY 9

Through a chain of idiotic circumstances, which I won’t detail, a miraculously healed Kiyotaka and a contrite Todoriki end up as students in the same unofficial driving academy, located in a rundown former junior high school and staffed by the beauteous, infinitely patient Saki (Kumiko Aso) and her sketchy parents (the mononymous Dankan and Toshie Negishi).

The scene is thus set for buddy comedy, as well as for romantic conflict as Kiyotaka falls for Saki, the academy’s only instructor and eligible female. But Kiyoto Wada’s script, based on Shinzo’s comic, subverts formula. First, Kiyotaka and Todoriki barely know each other (they had exactly one conversation in high school) and are total opposites. Second, Saki is not only a decade or so older than Kiyotaka, but vastly more mature. Romance seems out of the question, as does friendship beyond the transitory “see you later” sort between Kiyotaka and Todoroki.

The story instead centers on the growth of its two heroes, with Kiyotaka beginning to register the existence of others and Todoroki starting to question his choice of profession. As he did in his previous feature, the action comedy “Maniac Hero” (“Hero Mania: Seikatsu”), Toyoshima films his offbeat story with a mix of rough dota-bata (knock-about) humor and heartfelt dramatics that never shade into sentimentalism. Instead of stridently imitating his source material — the usual approach of manga-to-film adaptations here — his treatment, though still manga-inspired, humanizes the often wacky action.

Toyoshima also fills in his backgrounds with funny details — in this case the antics of gaikokujin (non-Japanese), gyaru (‘gals’ or extreme fashionistas) and other marginal types using school as a hangout or a hideout zone. But when Todoroki and his gang violently collide with some obstreperous outlanders, the film takes an abrupt turn to the serious — and we realize that some cultural barriers are too big to leap, if not bash.

Strangely, this incident leaves no lasting mark, as the film moves briskly toward a climax poignant and true to everything we’ve learned about our heroes and their eventful summer behind the wheel: They get their licenses from the School of Life.

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