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The title of Soushi Matsumoto’s feature debut, “It’s a Summer Film,” is somewhat misleading: Instead of enjoying her summer break at the beach, the film’s intense teenage protagonist (Marika Ito) is struggling to make her first film, a homage to the samurai sword fight epics she loves. Having premiered at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, it’s the latest of the many Japanese movies that depict the grind and glory of filmmaking.

Working from his co-written original script, Matsumoto stirs in various genres, from sci-fi to romance, served up with a gawky semi-comic sincerity, as though he is trying to stylistically channel his awkward adolescent self. The result made me cringe at times, but it was still hard to dislike. Maybe I just have a weakness for kids who heatedly debate the relative merits of period action stars Shintaro Katsu and Ichikawa Raizo.

Nicknamed “Barefoot” for reasons undisclosed, the protagonist is a member of her high school’s film club, and is dealt a blow when she loses the vote for the club’s annual film project, which is to be screened at the school culture festival. The winner is a cute, popular girl whose script is a syrupy teenage love story similar to the pop cinema effusions that crowd multiplex screens. Barefoot, however, has her own supporters — “Kickboard” (Yuumi Kawai), a sci-fi nerd who belongs to the astronomy club, and “Blue Hawaii” (Kilala Inori), a star of the kendo club.

It's a Summer Film (Sama Firumu ni Notte)
Rating
Run Time 97 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The trio meets in a broken-down bus converted into a makeshift clubhouse, where they enthuse over old samurai films, including Barefoot’s favorite: Kenji Misumi’s “The Tale of Zatoichi,” a 1962 black-and-white swashbuckler starring Katsu as the titular blind swordsman. Naturally she knows every line and frame.

With her pals’ encouragement, Barefoot decides to film her script, which ends with the top-knotted hero and his rival in a duel to the death. One night, in a local theater playing — what else? — samurai classics, she finds her lead in Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), a fellow cinephile and classmate. He has the dashing manliness and winning vulnerability she is looking for, but he flatly refuses to appear in her film.

We soon learn that Rintaro has come from the future, in which Barefoot is regarded as a world-class auteur but also movies have disappeared, falling victim to fly-like attention spans. Though forbidden by a long-haired holographic entity known as “Doc” from changing the past, Rintaro is nonetheless eager to see Barefoot’s maiden effort, thought in his time to be lost. She, however, is determined that he star in it and, after some persuasion tactics that involve a wacky chase scene, he reluctantly agrees. And as Kickboard soon intuits, Barefoot is secretly in love.

From this point the film follows a familiar seishun eiga (youth film) arc, with the central pair striving mightily to hide their feelings for each other, as Barefoot and her motley film crew, mostly used for comic relief, overcome obstacle after obstacle to their expected triumph at the festival. But last-minute twists threaten to turn this narrative into the sort of sappy romantic drama that Barefoot once disdained.

As a celebration of adolescent passion and energy, “It’s a Summer Film” has a clunky poignance and charm. And if it entices anyone to watch “The Tale of Zatoichi,” it will have served a worthy purpose. Master of cinema or not, Barefoot has great taste.

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