The Hakone Ekiden is one of the biggest university athletic events in Japan. Run every year on January 2 and 3, the two-day relay marathon follows a course of almost 220 kilometres between Tokyo and Hakone and is a matter of massive prestige for the universities involved. Seasoned writer Sumio Omori, who became the youngest winner of the Kuniko Mukoda Award for screenwriting, uses this difficult course to make his directorial debut with Feel the Wind (風が強く吹いている or Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru), a fictionalised account of a struggling team to overcome great odds. Winner of Best New Director at the 19th Japan Movie Critic Awards and the 31st Yokohama Film Festival, Feel the Wind is the kind of film engineered to make audiences feel good.
University student Haiji (Keisuke Koide, from the blockbuster Rookies) is a former runner whose career has slid due to injury. He had all but given up on the dream of running the Hakone Ekiden until he meets elite runner Kakeru (Kento Hayashi), who has left running due to a fight with his coach. Gathering eight other housemates, who have never run before, they form the necessary team of 10 athletes to fulfil Haiji’s dream of qualifying for the ekiden (marathon relay). Most of them are not up to the challenge, but the rag-tag team of roommates are determined to help Haiji fulfil his seemingly impossible dream.
Sports movies are always popular with crowds, and there is something about marathon running that seems to particularly appeal to the masochist is all of us. From at least Chariots of Fire onwards, which was admittedly about sprinting taken to balletic heights, track athletics have been taken as a convenient outlet for personal pain and anguish. Everybody on the team has something to work through, from Haiji’s injury to the manga-obsessed Prince (Yuichi Nakamura) and his lack of self-worth, and by the end of Feel the Wind, we get the impression that their accomplishments in the race have also worked through some of those “issues” as well. As the distributor Shochiku succinctly puts its “Through the training and the experience, each member finds their inner strength and the joy of feeling the wind”. Wind joy, that’s what it’s all about.
Feel the Wind misses a few steps during the middle act, which drags on a little too long, and by the end of the marathon itself audiences may feel like they have run the entire distance. Perhaps this is a side-effect of the bookish origins, as the film is an adaptation of Shion Miura’s novel that centres on the race. One would imagine we get much more personal insight into the personal pain of the competitors in the novel, although this highly emotional film borders on the melodramatic at times. However, Feel the Wind has that Rocky spirit, without Sylvester Stallone’s endless monologues to nobody in particular. It’s appeal is indicated by Feel the Wind‘s Top 10 rankings in Japanese Film of 2009 lists in both the Kinema Junpo and Yokohama Film Festival. Indeed, the latter puts it in such fine company as the brilliant Love Exposure, Japanese Film Festival stable-mates Dear Doctor and Villon’s Wife, and one of my personal favourite films of the year, Summer Wars. On the Brisbane leg of the 14th Japanese Film Festival, this was voted an audience favourite. This will no doubt connect with audiences, but just be prepared to watch a lot of running.
Feel the Wind is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It does not appear to have an Australian distributor attached at the time of writing.