The thing that has always excites me about cinema is that I am constantly learning new things. Prior to Shodo Girls, I had no idea that there was such a thing as competition performance calligraphy. Yes, the gentle art of fancy lettering is a no-holds-barred bloodletting that gets pretty fierce. Plus, it’s all based on a true story! Well, except for the bloodletting part. I just got kind of carried away. One has to admit, that theatrical poster (to the left) does make this look like an action epic. That aside, Shodo Girls is one of the most unlikely delights I have seen in quite some time.
Satoko (Riko Narumi) leads her high-school calligraphy club, but struggles to keep the numbers of people up. Their little world is rocked when a new substitute teacher, Ikezawa (Nobuaki Kaneko, Crows Zero II) arrives and brings a fresh new approach to calligraphy. Resigned to the fact that their calligraphy is boring, the girls decide to revitalise their economically ailing town by staging a bit of performance calligraphy. After some false starts, and a Rocky-style training montage with music (the second of the festival, following Feel the Wind), the girls enter themselves in the “Shodo Girls Koshien”, in which they must make calligraphy on giant sheets of paper to music.
The tension between traditional and radical modernisation is a theme that runs strong throughout Japanese cinema, and indeed throughout Japan, and Shodo Girls conveys this tension effectively. Yet in some ways the films can’t escape another cinematic tradition: that of a small team of misfits overcoming great odds at competition level. Indeed, some of the similar themes can be seen in this year’s festival hits Feel the Wind and Solanin to a lesser extent. However, Shodo Girls manages to transcend this cliché to some degree via a cast of terrific characters that the script spends some time getting to know.
The film’s lead, Riko Narumi, has been in a number of similar films over the last few years. Indeed, her most recent film before this one, Bushido Sixteen, is about a rivalry that grows during kendo training, leading up to one final tournament. Her character is at first somewhat overbearing, but thanks to the other members of the team – including singer/actress Mitsuki Takahata, who is absolutely wonderful in the role of the overly earnest Kiyomi, whose beaming enthusiasm inspires the rest of the group – manages to become a rousing leader capable of drawing words on big pieces of paper with the best of them.
Perhaps what is most surprising about Shodo Girls is that it is all based on a true story. Like Happy Family Plan in 2009, Shodo Girls is designed to act as something of a cultural ambassador to the Japanese Film Festival, complete with language learning activities for the school groups who have no doubt bought out the first session of this film. After all, where else but Japan would performance calligraphy be met with such unbridled enthusiasm? It is the perfect antidote to the overbearing high-school glee clubs from High School Musical, Spectacular! or TV’s Glee, and instead takes us on a gentle journey through personal development, complete with male cheerleaders. Along with giving us an insight into the importance of this gentle art of the Japanese psyche, it is designed as a wholesale “feel good” picture that is guaranteed to having people roused and ready to enrol in calligraphy lessons by the end of its swift running time.
Like the art it portrays, Shodo Girls is a film with charms that become more apparent the longer one reflects on them. Director Ryuichi Inomata has a strong history of television film production, and his previous feature film – 2007’s weepy dog-drama A Tale of Mari and Three Puppies, a film I randomly managed to catch on television in Hiroshima late last year – had a distinctly “movie of the week” feel to it. Although Shodo Girls pays a strong debt to these traditions, it is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable character-driven piece that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser at this year’s festival circuit.
Shodo Girls is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It does not appear to have an Australian distributor attached at the time of writing.