Daigo Matsui might be described as Japan’s equivalent to John Hughes, the director of “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and other classic films about American teens in the 1980s.
Like Hughes, Matsui finds comedy in his adolescent characters, beginning with his 2013 “Daily Lives of High School Boys,” but he is also sympathetic with their problems and schemes, however idiotic or impractical they may seem to adults. In the 2015 film, “Our Huff and Puff Journey,” for example, four high school girls pedal their commuter bikes from Kyushu to Tokyo to see their favorite band — disasters and adventures ensue.
Matsui’s latest, “#Handball Strive,” is both a typical coming-of-age story and a trendy social commentary, focusing on how a single photo on social media can instantly change its taker’s life, for better and worse. His teenage lead, Masao (Seishiro Kato), finds an old photo of himself playing handball that reminds him of happier days, before his life was upended by the powerful earthquakes that hit Kumamoto in 2016. He posts the image on Instagram and it goes viral, prompting Masao and a pal to begin staging handball photos and videos for social media, and even inventing a phony team.
“Social media is not something new for me,” Matsui says in an interview at his publicist’s Tokyo office. “I started making it a theme about five years ago with ‘Our Huff and Puff Journey’ and ‘Japanese Girls Never Die.’”
As for the effects of having friends and followers enthusiastically giving feedback at the click of a button, Matsui says, “Young people no longer trust expressions of support or encouragement they get on social media,” he says. “Or they regard them lightly, using (the comments) for their own purposes. But some feel harassed or freeze up when they are told to ‘ganbatte’ (try harder).”
While noting that Kumamoto is close to his native Fukuoka — both are cities on the Western island of Kyushu — Matsui says he didn’t use the Kumamoto earthquake as a subject to “express support because it was such a big disaster.”
“I want to show how those from outside (the region) supported everyone (in Kumamoto) three years earlier, when the disaster occurred, but have since lost interest, even though the local people have worked hard to recover,” he explains.
When Matsui went to Kumamoto to prepare for filming, he found the local reaction positive.
“They thought the film would be an interesting way to promote the city,” he says. “Looking at their situation from the outside you might imagine they have it tough, but people there are really strong.”
At the same time, Matsui didn’t want to treat his fictional Kumamoto teens as special merely because they had experienced the earthquake.
“I didn’t want to draw any distinction between them and ordinary teenagers,” he explains. “Their joy when they get a lot of support for their Instagram photos is a feeling that ordinary teens would have.”
Matsui admits he has something in common with his youthful male protagonists, whose Instagram-only team garners undeserved fame, while the girls’ handball squad at their high school practice seriously to win an actual tournament. “In my heart of hearts, I’m 10 years old,” he says with a grin. “Men don’t really become adults, do they? I’m 34 years old, but I still feel like a boy.”
Also, unlike the many directors of seishun eiga (“youth films”) whose stars are a decade or so older than the teenage characters they portray, Matsui cast “#Handball Strive” with adolescent actors.
“Someone who looks 18 should play someone 18,” he says. “I like actors with young-looking faces whose performances aren’t set in stone.”
His lead protagonist, however, is played by Seishiro Kato, who may be 18 years old, but began his career at the age of 1 and has been busy as a film, TV and stage actor ever since.
“He’s been doing this since he was a kid, so his style of acting is fixed,” Matsui says. “He gives a good performance, but at first I didn’t know how to break him away from that fixed style. So, we did take after take on the set.”
Why handball? “It’s played a lot in Kyushu and Okinawa,” Matsui explains, “but compared to basketball and soccer, it doesn’t stand out so much. But I like sports that aren’t so popular — I want to support them.”
The release date for “#Handball Strive” was pushed back from May to July 31 due to theater shutdowns in the wake of COVID-19, but Matsui is hopeful that audiences will support the film, as well as other films being released in the coronavirus era, by paying to see them. Of course, the film industry first has to adapt to the new normal.
“I think we have to come up with new forms of expression such as filming remotely and streaming the result.” Matsui says. “But, of course, I still like movie theaters.”
He also doesn’t want to give up on making movies, even with social distancing restrictions, citing the people of Kumamoto as inspiration.
“They experienced an earthquake and it knocked them back on their heels, but they felt they had to persevere, no matter what,” he says. “Film releases have been canceled and film production has been halted due to the novel coronavirus, but we have to follow their example.”
That is, somehow keep filming, though he feels that dark subject matter is out.
“I want to shoot cheerful films,” Matsui says, adding that he has already directed one movie fitting that description, shot in April and now in post-production. “Everyone wore masks, did social distancing and used hand sanitizer. It will be released next year.”
As a fallback (though he doesn’t call it that), Matsui has embarked on a new career: novelist. His first novel, “Mata Ne Kazoku” (“So Long Family”), about a theater troupe director who learns that his father has only three months to live, was published on May 18 by Kodansha. He signs a copy for me just before I walk out the door.
“I hope you enjoy it,” he says. Not expecting this gift, I thank him and leave. Will it become his first post-pandemic film? Next time, I’ll ask.
“#Handball Strive” will start showing in Kumamoto from July 24, and in cinemas nationwide from July 31. For more information, visit handzenryoku.com.