Most athletes live in fear of the fateful injury that derails their career, but when university freshman Haruki (Ryusei Yokohama) damages his shoulder during judo training, he seems relieved. Despite growing up in a family of judoka, he’s never taken to the sport with the passion of his older sister, Haruko (Kurumi Shimizu), and sees this unexpected furlough as an opportunity to try something different.

Best pal Kazuma (Masaki Nakao) has an unorthodox suggestion: with a dramatic flourish designed to induce swoons in female viewers, he invites Haruki to start an all-male cheer team.

True to genre convention, their first recruits are misfits: the portly Koji (Daichi Kodaira) and nerdy Wataru (Kodai Asaka). After a successful demo performance on campus, they manage to lure tennis-club jocks Gen (Shogo Iwaya) and Soichiro (Ken Sugawara). They also attract the attention of Sho (Toshiki Seto), a star cheerleader with a checkered past, and though he rebuffs their initial advances, you just know he’s going to be won over in the end.

Cheer Boys!! (Chia Danshi!!)
Run Time 118 mins.
Opens May 10

Kazuma christens the squad “Breakers,” in recognition of how they are upending gender norms and defying the status quo — potent ideas that the film never mentions again.

Coming after this year’s Super Bowl, where Napoleon Jinnies and Quinton Peron became the first male cheerleaders ever to appear in the event, the premise of “Cheer Boys!!” doesn’t sound so implausible. The film’s source novel, by Ryo Asai, is loosely based on a real-life team from Tokyo’s Waseda University, and has already spawned manga, anime and stage adaptations. Helmed by first-time feature director Hiroki Kazama, this inevitable big-screen version scores points for physical effort but loses them on execution.

Although the Breakers have a few ups and downs on the way to their eventual triumph, the arc of the film’s sporting drama is surprisingly shallow. Working on the assumption that everyone loves an underdog, “Cheer Boys!!” takes its emotional payoffs for granted rather than trying to earn them. It skips a few of the narrative beats that might have made it gripping, and devotes too much time to the personal dramas of characters too thinly sketched to engage.

Sho still blames himself for the accident that left one of his former teammates in a wheelchair; the orphaned Kazuma has spent the past two years watching his sole surviving relative succumb to dementia. By comparison, Haruki’s attempt to convince his sister that he made the right decision to give up judo is a mere trifle, while Gen and Soichiro’s main problem seems to be that they can’t admit they’re in love with each other. (Spoiler alert: The film is equally oblivious.)

The cast spent three months training for their roles, meaning that the movie doesn’t have to resort to body doubles and editing tricks during the cheerleading scenes. The Breakers would never pass muster with the NFL, but their climactic routine has an infectious energy, making it all the more frustrating when Kazama resorts to slow-motion and slushy music rather than letting the performance speak for itself. The less said about the film’s nonathletic performances, the better.

The most obvious point of comparison is to “Water Boys,” Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 comedy about a schoolboy synchronized swimming team. “Cheer Boys!!” could have used a little of that movie’s charm and cheeky humor. Those exclamation marks in the title aren’t fooling anyone.

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