Zero-to-hero movies, usually about athletes or musicians or other folks engaged in something competitive and cinematic (baseball, yes; darts, no), are a staple of the film business in Japan. One reason: Audiences here admire gaman — the perseverance the protagonists display in pursuit of their group or individual goals. Another reason: They enjoy a good cry and these films reliably deliver, usually with a final heart-warming, tear-wrenching triumph.
Masahide Ichii’s “Bring on the Melody!” is among the latest in this sub-genre. Based on a teen mystery novel series by Sei Hatsuno that has already launched a manga and TV anime, the film starts naively formulaic, as though Ichii, who also wrote the script, somehow hadn’t heard that some of his tropes were gray-bearded cliches.
The film largely drops the mystery plots of the novels, but keeps its focus squarely on a universal truth: Being a high school hero — the one who makes the big play on the field or hits the high note in the big concert — sounds wonderful in the abstract, but can be terrifying in the moment. And what if you’re not the hero type to begin with but instead an ordinary, if unusually persistent, teenage girl?
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||119 mins|
The story begins with one such girl, Chika (Kanna Hashimoto), a new freshman at a Shizuoka Prefecture high school. On the bus Chika encounters Haruta (Shori Sato), a former classmate from elementary school, who has now grown tall, cute and emotionally distant. But when Chika conceives an ambition to revive the school’s wind band — it folded in acrimony and discord — she enlists a reluctant Haruta, who plays the French horn, and together they set out to persuade at least seven other kids to join.
The elderly school principal (Kotaro Shiga) has given them three weeks to recruit a total of nine members — one for each instrument. Otherwise, he tells them, the band will have to stay in limbo for at least another year.
The stage is thus set for an extended recruitment sequence reminiscent of the one in Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” when Takashi Shimura, as a ronin (masterless samurai), takes on the task of assembling the seven title warriors. The diminutive Chika is no samurai, though she delivers some surprisingly hard kicks and blows to the balky Haruta, while working tirelessly to revive the band with the support of its former conductor, Mr. Kusakabe (Keisuke Koide). A frustrated composer, Kusakabe has written a jazzy number he wants the band to play at an upcoming inter-school competition.
There is one problem: As adept as Chika is in cajoling eight bruised and battling adolescent egos to make music together, she is a beginner on the flute and Kusakabe’s composition contains a ferociously hard (at least for Chika) flute solo.
Haruta, meanwhile, segues from serving as a Chika’s punching bag to being her supportive pal. Fans of the Sexy Zone idol group member Sato may lament his role as Haruta as a lost opportunity for romantic interludes. I, however, was more bothered by the busy, clunky exposition profiling every blessed band member, back stories included.
Some scenes also drag on, particularly one of a group meltdown in the school band room, which is presented in one interminable middle-distance take. The intention may have been to show the band as a single entity rather than separate individuals, but the execution feels disengaged, as though Ichii and his cinematographer left for a cigarette break while the camera was running.
But a rousing, gleefully over-the-top climax makes up for the film’s longueurs. And it has nothing to do with any sort of triumph, save over nerves. Like its heroine, “Bring on the Melody!” doesn’t always hit the right notes, but it gamans through to victory, at least over this critic. Now let me reach for my Kleenex.
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