Japanese road movies are many; ones featuring high school kids, relatively few. One was Daigo Matsui’s 2015 “Our Huff and Puff Journey,” about four high school girls in Fukuoka who set off on their commuter bikes to see a concert in Tokyo.
The premise of Satoru Hirohara’s “Dawn Wind in My Poncho” is similarly wacky, if with male leads: Three high school seniors take a trip to find the long-missing father of one. Along the way they meet a “gravure idol” (model for racy photos) and a “fashion health” (oral sex) shop employee. Wild, drunken revels ensue.
If you think this sounds about as probable as aliens landing on the roof of the Diet building, you are not alone. But based on Kazumasa Hayami’s eponymous novel, the film is perceptive about the passages of adolescence and the vagaries of life on the road. Its journey may not be yours, but it happens to be funny and sad in ways familiar to anyone who was once a hormone-crazed teenage boy given sobering raps across the knuckles by reality.
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Our hero, Matahachi (the single-named Taiga), has just gotten his drivers’ license, but not the hang of how to drive. Even so, he and his goofy pal Janbo (Yuma Yamoto) cruise off in the Toyota Celsior belonging to Janbo’s excitable dad (Jiro Sato) to the elite college where friend Jin (Aoi Nakamura) is checking his entrance exam results. Matahachi and Janbo are already celebrating when a disconsolate Jin tells them he failed the exam. Soon after, the boys discover that in tooling around a parking lot, Matahachi badly scratched the car.
This, as it turns out, is only the beginning of their troubles — and adventures. Through a series of absurd events they end up with the volatile Ai (Aimi Satsukawa) — the gravure idol — in the back seat and a gang of angry motorcycle punks hot on their trail.
After escaping this threat (if with more damage to dad’s pride and joy), Matahachi suddenly decides he must see the live concert of a Peruvian band whose leader, he believes from the shaky evidence of an old photo, is his birth father. Off they go, though along the way they manage to pick up Maria (Junko Abe), the aforementioned fashion health employee.
So far, so farcical. But Hirohara, whose 2009 debut “Good Morning to the World!!” screened at Vancouver, Berlin and elsewhere, does more than mine easy laughs from his trio’s encounters on the road, both sexual and violent. Also, the boys have their quieter, more reflective moments when they contemplate the end of youth or the world’s nasty habit of crushing dreams.
The film’s real energy source, though, is Satsukawa as Ai, who celebrates her (perhaps temporary) freedom by letting out a full-throated yell and calling for a mad dash to who-cares-where. By contrast, our three heroes are wussy types who, on their own would be interesting only for their typical teenage cock-ups.
Also notable is a cameo by Shota Sometani, his millennial generation’s go-to guy for offbeat roles. Playing an oddball classmate who is left out of this little adventure, he disrupts his high school graduation ceremony with an epic solo on his guitar.
He does not, however, succeed in shifting the movie into high gear. Its stop-and-start engine, not to mention its three bumbling drivers, aren’t built for it.
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