High School Debut – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Haruna Nagashima gave her all to softball in middle school, now that she has made her high school debut, she has decided to give her all for a new goal: getting a boyfriend and falling in love. However, she has one small problem—since she never paid any attention to fashion or trends in middle school, she has no idea how to go about attracting her yet-to-be-found love. But a chance encounter with the popular Yoh Komiyama provides her with the opportunity she needs. If he coaches her in how to become attractive, surely she can find herself a boyfriend. He agrees to coach Haruna after her great persistence but on one condition: she mustn’t fall in love with him.

Based on the highly popular shojo manga series by author Kazune Kawahara, High School Debut offers an outrageously comical look into one high school student’s absolute affixation with finding a boyfriend and entering the world of dating. While High School Debut’s premise may have already been seen to a certain degree in a variety of other films and television dramas, the portrayal of characters and situations found within the film are creatively done in a matter that liven up its tried and true narrative structure. While relying on the standard tropes that are often associated with the realm of shojo—unlikely characters falling in love, over the top situations, and comical humor—the film is aware of these elements and for the most part presents a satirical play on them. From Haruna’s initial reliance and eventual realization that the shojo manga titles she reads are illogical, to the film’s many jabs at the dating advice offered through teen magazines, the whole perception of dating is brought into question. Quite simply, High School Debut is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously and pokes quite a lot of fun at itself and the genre it champions. It’s this much-needed awareness that keeps the film from simply becoming another sloppily executed manga to live action adaptation, instead bringing about a refreshing take on the genre in quite the most uncommon ways.

What helps out most in establishing this distinctiveness in the film is first and foremost the characters themselves. With a young and energetic cast taking the helm, they nicely complement the film’s animated and exuberant atmosphere and pace. This element of the film is certainly encapsulated in the character of protagonist Haruna, played extraordinarily well by actress Ito Ono. Acting as her debut film, her spirited portrayal of Haruna is absolutely a joy to watch. Whether it’s her humorous attempts made to attract the opposite sex, to her strict adherence as a disciple of dating to Yoh, she practically carries the entire film as the most charming and comical character. It would be wonderful to see her in future films, especially since she showcases such a charismatic performance here. Recognition should also go towards Junpei Mizobata as Yoh. Junpei gives a solid performance that is equally as comical as Ito’s. Viewed as the exact opposite personality-wise within the film, his character’s brash but vulnerable behavior prevents the film from becoming solely focused on the endeavors of Haruna, offering a great balance between the two as they vie to find a solution to Haruna’s inadequacy in dating. The comical timing between the two is excellent, and they truly become engaged within their characters. There is a host of other prominent actresses as well in the film, from gravure model Rina Aizawa, who plays Yoh’s flirtatious younger sister Asami, and AKB48 members Sae Miyazawa as Harun’s best friend Mami and Yuka Masuda as Haruna’s school rival. With a cast of likeable and recognizable faces, it’s sure to please fans of the manga series.

Another quality of the film is that it’s simply hilarious almost constantly throughout, mainly because of the performances by Ito and Junpei. From the misconstrued execution of the film’s by the book rules to dating—a quite literal presentation for sure—to the film’s ability to switch between elements of comedy and drama without missing a beat, High School Debut’s vigorous pacing certainly keeps film from becoming stale. With the heavy reliance on elements of comedy spread throughout, the film does restrain itself at times to introduce elements of drama as well. As such, the film loses some of its appeal as it focuses more so on the forming affectionate relationship between Haruna and Yoh rather than their amusing friendship. While not particularly detrimental to the overall plot, these segments within the film do indeed slow down the pacing, while also relying on unnecessary plot devices that reinforce some stereotypical themes found within the shojo genre. While the blossoming relationship between Haruna and Yoh is integral to the plot—and again, is seemingly an unavoidable aspect of the genre—it steadily begins to adhere towards a certain demographic, where else for a majority of the film the themes could be viewed as universal. These tired elements of the plot somewhat bring down the narrative of the film, but it should easily appeal to those viewers who find the unlikely pairing of two contrasting characters both plausible and gratifying.

Director Tsutomu Hanabusa, while only having directed one other film before taking on High School Debut with the humorous Handsome Suit (2008), easily translates the visionary and artistic nature of the manga over to film. Capturing the vivid atmosphere of the manga series, the look of the film and its characters should appeal to fans of the manga. Complementing the vibrant nature of the source material, the character expressions and mannerisms remain the appeal of the film. Hanabusa certainly has a keen eye for comical timing, which the film does quite successfully through its characters. From the dreamy sequences of Haruna’s daydreaming antics to the festive Christmas Eve-centered conclusion, the visual styling of the film is nice but can be mostly viewed as more akin to a television drama rather than a film. This is surely not to be viewed as a total negative aspect, but an increase in budget would have elevated the look of the film significantly. Some of the usage of CGI in certain scenes is blatantly obvious as well, which somewhat lessens the visual quality of the film even further, but luckily these scenes are kept to a minimum.

Overall, High School Debut is a surprisingly witty and entertaining film that in the hands of a lesser cast and director would have easily fallen within the realm of predictability all too soon. With a premise centered on the tested “makeover” theme viewed in other shojo manga titles, the film easily avoids many of the pitfalls of the genre by having a likeable cast of characters that aren’t archetypical and an experimental narrative. While the film does have it moments of tediousness towards its conclusion, it remains afloat through it numerous laugh-out-loud antics and humorous offerings on the notions of contemporary dating. Perhaps the film’s strongest strength is that it easily breaks down the barriers of the genre it subscribes to with relative ease, forging a new path in its wake. With a blatantly flawed character such as Haruna searching for the likes of a boyfriend, the film establishes a realistic albeit imaginative take on the issue of teenage love, all the while remaining acutely aware of many of the subject’s hardships and falsehoods. With a delightful cast—especially that of Ito Ono—an appealing premise, and relevant satire, the film presents a highly comical tale on a subject that is often times riddled with clichéd elements that do little for its story. Fortunately, High School Debut is removed from many of those elements, in turn making it one highly amusing and charming  film.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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