31 July 2008

Smilers (スマイル聖夜の奇跡, 2007)

On my flight back to Frankfurt from Toronto last week, I was surprised to find a fairly recent Japanese film among the in-flight movie offerings. Smilers (Sumairu seiya no kiseki, 2007) is a Christmas movie released in Japan mid-December last year and it just came out on DVD in June. It’s a remake of The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992) in which a guy who knows nothing about ice hockey coaches a kids’ team and leads them to glory. Instead of being a lawyer, the Emilio Estevez character, Shuhei Sano (Mirai Moriyama – of Waterboys fame) is a former tap dancer who takes on the challenge of coaching a Hokkaido high school hockey team in order to win the school principle’s permission to marry his daughter.

Now I have a pretty high tolerance level for cheesy Japanese dramas but I’m afraid Smilers didn’t stand much of a chance as I watched it immediately after watching the Oscar winning Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007), an earnest film based on the true story of Jews forced to make counterfeit money for the Nazis at Sachsenhausen starring the excellent Austrian actor Karl Markovics. Needless to say, J-dorama and method acting should not ever appear in the same sentence together except in unlikely circumstances such as these.

My only real pleasure in watching Smilers was the delight of recognition as the film was shot on location in Sapporo and Tomakomai. The exteriors and interiors were extremely realistic and brought back a lot of Hokkaido memories for me. On the down side, the film was replete with Hokkaido stereotypes as well. One kid’s parents had a horse ranch, another’s had a fishing boat, yet another father sat at home making fake marimo (毬藻), the moss balls for which Lake Akan is famous. I didn’t quite get that one as Tomakomai is nowhere near Lake Akan.

It was difficult to get through the whole two hours with one’s eyes open due to the unusual number of sappy subplots designed to wrench mercilessly a the heartstrings of Christmas audiences. The main plot itself is highly unlikely as it underestimates just how many years of training are required to form a good ice hockey team. It could have been a reasonably enjoyable film if director Takanori Jinnai had reduced the extraneous subplots and toned down the acting a bit. The school principal was played by a Takenaka Naoto wannabe – in other words, an over-the-top ham actor.

One very interesting thing that I realized when watching Smilers was that only the children were able to play their roles with any sincerity or credibility. Perhaps, due to their young age, they have not yet seen enough J-dorama themselves to hone the skills of clichéd J-dorama acting. At any rate, the film must have made it onto the Air Canada in-flight screening list because it featured hockey and classifies as inoffensive family entertainment. Now if only I could work out how they managed to classify a documentary about Annie Liebowitz at ‘avant garde’. . .

Smile Seiya no Kiseki (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008