Film / Reviews

‘Sensei Kunshu’: Looking for love in all the wrong places

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Student crushes on teachers are a pop culture staple (ask any Van Halen fan). In real life, they’re a minefield, with trip wires becoming ever more sensitive.

“Sensei Kunshu,” Momoko Koda’s hit manga about a teenage girl (Minami Hamabe) goo-goo-eyed over a handsome math teacher (Ryoma Takeuchi), harks back to the innocent days before YouTube exposes and Twitter autos-da-fe. Instead, schoolgirl fantasies rule, leavened by the comedy of awkwardness and embarrassment, exaggerated to the human limit. Want to see actors doing their darndest to imitate comic book characters? This is your film.

“Sensei Kunshu” is also a reminder that Western trends can be slow to arrive here. In American films and TV heroines now range from the admirably strong (Wonder Woman) to the comically resilient (Kimmy Schmidt). In “Sensei Kunshu” the moony heroine, Ayuha Samaru, is as dim and inconstant as an expiring light bulb. All she knows for sure is that she really wants a boyfriend.

Sensei Kunshu
Rating
Run Time 105 mins.
Language JAPANESE

However, Koda, whose manga also inspired the 2015 film “Heroine Disqualified,” knows her readers identify more with lovable screw-ups than flawless role models. And Ayuha does change and grow, if with a sequoia-like speed.

As the story begins she is a first-year high school student who has been turned down by seven would-be paramours. Then her regular math teacher falls ill and the substitute is the tall, dreamy Yoshitaka Hiromitsu (Takeuchi), who recently paid her bill at a gyūdon (beef bowl) joint when, typically, she was short of cash.

Deciding that their chance meeting was fated, Ayuha tries to win his attention, as do a couple of flirty classmates, but Mr. Hiromitsu reacts to their advances with indifference, sarcasm and, in Ayuha’s case, hard-nosed advice. Seeing her miserable after a disastrous first-date with the first boy to express romantic interest in her, Mr. Hiromitsu tells her that dating a guy just to date a guy (as well as to boast to your pals about it) is wrong. Figure out what you really want and go for it, he advises.

What she really wants, she realizes, is Mr. Hiromitsu. But will he ever want her?

The answers may quicken the hearts of the manga’s fans, but struck this nonfan as … questionable. When Ayuha boldly informs her teacher she will make him fall for her, he shrugs it off with a laugh. Also, he ends up alone with her in his office, under an umbrella, in a car and even in a room. And they finally go on what can only be called a date. Though he may be a brilliant mathematics wizard, Mr. Hiromitsu is also an idiot.

But director Sho Tsukikawa, who also made last year’s smash romantic melodrama “Let Me Eat Your Pancreas,” knows that his core audience — girls of Ayuha’s age — want a laugh and a dream, not action out of a tabloid headline. Also, when an old acquaintance of Mr. Hiromitsu’s shows up — a gorgeous part-time music teacher (Yua Shinkawa) — the besotted Ayuha begins to realize that her crush is, well, a crush.

As Ayuha, Hamabe rounds her lips and pouts like a trout at every opportunity, to Mr. Hiromitsu’s bland disregard — and my rising irritation. Curious, I checked out the manga after the screening. The two-dimensional Ayuha, I discovered, is more believably human than her three-dimensional counterpart. Mr. Hiromitsu, I hope, stays a complete fiction.