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Schoolgirl Complex – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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The considerable fascination with the “Japanese schoolgirl” is an element of Japanese culture that has permeated throughout a multitude of artistic mediums such as anime, manga, music and many other popular outlets of entertainment. In many respects, it has also become one of the many global representations of Japanese pop culture itself, undoubtedly being influential and becoming an extension of soft power for the country as whole. Perhaps most famously known for Nude, his 2008 film based on the autobiographical novel by real life AV actress Mihiro Taniguchi, director Yuichi Onuma takes the helm of the amply Schoolgirl Complex, a film whose title is sure to stir up discussion due to it quite plainly surrounding the theme of Japanese schoolgirls. Based upon the photo book of the same name by photographer Yuki Aoyama, the source material for the film should be an indication of what a film adaptation would offer. Oddly though, Schoolgirl Complex is an ambiguous work that has difficulty truly knowing what it wants to be.

Consisting of a combined direction that seemingly focuses on a voyeuristic nature encompassing the schoolgirls – the opening moments showing them in a variety of appealing poses, a prime example of Aoyama’s influence visible all throughout the film – and the exploration of the complexities surrounding the blossoming sexual tensions and desires shared amongst two individuals, it initially appears that given the source material, Schoolgirl Complex would simply be a vehicle in which to unabashedly exploit the archetypical Japanese schoolgirl. But while the film does not completely hinge upon the physical affixation of its characters, it also offers up a narrative that is not exactly original in terms of its execution or premise.

With its narrative centered on the burgeoning sexual emotions of Manami, a high school senior who is a member of the school’s broadcast club, we find her struggling to address her feelings towards Chiyuki, the latest member to join the club. Aoi Morikawa, known mostly for her drama roles, makes her film debut her as Manami, a role that suits her ability as an emerging actress relatively well. One can see that the more emotionally driven performance belongs to Mugi Kadowaki though, who plays Chiyuki. Portraying a conflicted individual, Kadowaki delivers an emotionally charging performance that mirrors the frustration that her character experiences as she struggles with her own bisexuality as well as her mutual liking to Manami. Maaya Kondo as Manami’s friend Ai also elicits a very genuine performance as the friend who hides her own attraction to Manami, which leads to a battle of affections between the three as they vie for each other’s attention.

Onuma directs the film with a certain attentiveness, carefully capturing the physical attraction expressed between certain characters with an alluring focus that is hard to deny. While there are undoubtedly moments with the film that do appear overtly sexual, Onuma is careful to equally showcase the intimate responses of the film’s characters as well, which is appreciative considering the themes that film encompasses could have easily been exploited. Onuma’s subtle direction is overall beneficial to the film’s narrative, allowing it appear as more reserved than what some viewers may have expected given its title. Even with Onuma’s proficient direction in regards to elevating and expanding the simplistic origins of its source material though, the complications surrounding how the narrative is executed hinders much of the potential emotional fortitude it may have had.

Although sincere with its characters, Schoolgirl Complex’s narrative unfortunately extends itself into too many directions for its own benefit. While the slow development of Minami and Chiyuki’s fondness for one another is the highlight of the film, the events of perfecting the end of the year school performance and the internal clashes of the broadcasting group are all but seemingly a divergence from what the film initially started out as being as – a simple coming-of-age love story. Aoyama, who co-rote the film alongside Shin Adachi, seem to want the concluding half of the film to be more acclimated towards the emotional experiences and struggles of graduating from high school, resorting to focusing on an overly melodramatic sequence of events surrounding an end of the year school performance rather than providing some convincing resolve towards Minami and Chiyuki’s delicate relationship. Quite surprisingly, this approach came across as more of an ode to Shun Nakahara’s similarly premised The Cherry Orchard (1990), a film that also dealt with year scholastic performances and affection between the same sex. But while that film highlighted the girl’s performance as a culmination of emotional struggles, repressed feelings, and determined hard work, here it just seems all too overwrought with wanting to be meaningful without providing the character development to make it be so.

Despite some of the directorial choices leading up to its conclusion, Schoolgirl Complex remains a film that seems to want to be too many things all at once. Perhaps this is due to Ayoma and Adachi’s ability as writers – Ayoma is first and foremost a photographer, not a writer, after all. Onuma’s direction is for the most part right on though, effectively capturing the essence of what the film is leaning towards, but sadly never truthfully exploring the concept of schoolgirls and evolving sexuality. Some would suggest that this is unfortunate, as this amply titled film is sure to garner interest based on its mere name alone, but perhaps a shorter, more concise film would have been appropriate for Schoolgirl Complex, with its current offering appearing as too muddled for its own good.

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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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