Smile Seiya no Kiseki Review

The Film

When tap dancer Sano Shuhei (Moriyama Mirai) suffers a career-breaking knee injury he finds himself somewhat down on his luck. Thankfully his loving girlfriend and skating instructor Shizuka (Kato Rosa) is there to lend her support. All Shuhei really wants now is to marry Shizuka, which is easier said than done when her father (Moro Morooka) refuses to ever let her out of his sight. However, after a bit of nagging he finally agrees to the marriage on one condition: that Shuhei coach and lead the local Hokkaido hockey juniors to victory at the regional’s - knowing of course that such a thing isn’t very likely. Disparaged but not undeterred, Shuhei takes up the challenge and meets up with the team of youngsters known as ‘The Smilers’. He finds a likely bunch of characters, but as far as a team goes they’ve a lot to learn. Using some unorthodox tactics, Shuhei slowly but surely teaches the children how to play as an efficient unit; that’s one thing, but these kids also have their own personal issues to contend with. Shuhei knows that he must do everything in his power to see that the youngsters make it to the end and crush their fiercest rival - Coach Tsuguri’s (RIKIYA) ’The Thunderbirds’.


Aside from a single gag pertaining to mobile phones Smile Seiya no Kiseki’s eighties setting bears very little significance in relation to the overall plot. From the opening five minutes it’s clear that its use is primarily to provide a stepping stone from child adolescence to adulthood, which it re-visits for an epilogue, though in hindsight it doesn’t seem entirely neccessary. The bulk of its two hour run time is spent frolicking in a period that echoes Japan’s contemporary climate if nothing else. It’s all so very prim and proper, with modern hairstyles, designer labels and décor; not a single reference to indicate that we’ve actually stepped back in time twenty years, even with a soundtrack that although strong falls shy of pinpointing an era. Unlike Yasuo Baba’s time travel comedy Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust of the same year, then, it seems that Smile isn’t so much into capturing authentic details as it is in simply providing a familiar family tale with uncaring anachronistic touches. For all intents this is still a pleasant little story which echoes a hundred like-minded ones before it. As with the prolific TV and film actor turned director’s feature length debut Rockers of 2003, we’re pitted a story of triumph over adversity, though it carries less of that personal touch, given that the former was a semi-autobiographical telling of Takanori Jinnai’s eighties punk band. All the more reason perhaps as to why Smile should feel a little more grounded in reality. However, I don’t suppose it’s particularly productive to list this as any detrimental flaw. After all Smile certainly delivers the goods regardless.

As alluded to in the above synopsis there isn’t a great amount of surprise to be had from Smile. An entirely predictable affair in which our hopeless little band of ruffians make their way to the big showdown against the ever-imposing ’Thunderbirds’, its director comfortably checks off his list of things to do. Sure enough he does everything he can to stack the odds against coach Shuhei and the children, seeing to it that they must first overcome personal obstacles before they can unite as one team. And each and every youngster portrayed isn’t without his her own problems. We have Shuhei himself, who has the burden of having to coach and take his team to victory in order to be granted the hand of his beloved Shizuka; the melancholic Masaya, whose parents died in a car crash and now he’s in love with Leukaemia-stricken skater Rena; Takashi, whose younger sister is disabled; and the shortest team member Takuya, who lives with his father but hasn’t seen his mother for years. Other characters have their place but the emphasis on helplessness seems to be focused toward a select few. That of course gives Takanori the perfect opportunity to throw in a curve ball here and there in order to keep hopes afloat; after all we do need some kind of narrative device to be able to cheer on Team Smilers to the very end. Make no mistake, he does manage to find the time to see to it that every one of his characters is dealt with in a generically appropriate manner.

Thankfully though Takanori rarely oversteps his mark and the film doesn’t wind up as the horribly manipulative affair that might suggest otherwise. Japan often loves placing copious amounts of sentimentality in its comedy and dramas, or even hybrids of both. When its not churning out wistful tales of school adolescence its telling stories of dying people falling in love. Maybe an unfair generalisation, but these are the kind of films that often resonate with the cinema-going public. Indeed, while Smile borrows just about every little cliché you can possibly imagine, it has to its advantage an assured director who never loses sight of simply wanting to have fun behind the delivering of his ultimate message. Despite a fair amount of looming tragedy and one or two sentiments that may place a lump in the throat his film is immensely entertaining and especially funny. There are several wonderful sight gags and inspired laugh out moments to be found, from the absurd comic-like violence to a Robert De Niro look-a-like and the imposing ‘Imperial March’ style anthem which accompanies coach Tsuguri and his rival team. And of course there are the hockey matches themselves, punctuated by plenty of guitar riffs. While not particularly exciting they’re fun diversions from some of the more contemplative moments. Moreover Smile has a certain charm about it. Shuhei’s tap-dancing coach is a breath of fresh air; a lively character whose innocent qualities reflect against those of the very children he strives to ‘better’, and in fact it’s the majority of the cast who help immeasurably in lifting the film beyond its worn shackles. Not every character is as well rounded as they could be, but with a highly populated cast of adults and more-than-tolerable children, not to mention some pleasant cameos from the likes of - blink and you’ll miss - Sato Koichi and a personal fave Susumu Terajima, that’s hardly a great shock.


The DVD


A/V

Given an anamorphic transfer close to 1.85:1, Smile looks resoundingly good. Aside from some minor compression noise and edge enhancement the film is nicely detailed, with bright and breezy colours - as displayed on the various sports apparel - and with no signs of colour bleed, which is great given the orange and reds on display. Brightness and contrast levels are equally well handled, making this another solid Japanese release.

Audio options consist of Japanese DD2.0 and 5.1 Surround. Commenting on the latter we have a solid effort, offering strong support across the front channels for dialogue, while making good use of the rears for the hockey matches. The action-oriented sequences aren’t handled too aggressively, but they make nice use of spatial effects in which we might occasionally hear the odd puck whiz past our ears, also allowing room for the score to neatly chime in with the intent of raising emotions.

Optional English subtitles are provided and as far as I’m concerned they pose no difficulties, being well timed and free from grammatical errors.


Extras

The following material does not contain English subtitles.

Disc 1:

Audio Commentary with Director Takanori Jinnai, Fuji TV Producer Toru Ota, and a chap I can’t quite identify. The lack of subtitles naturally makes this difficult to follow, but it’s certainly an energetic piece. Also included are two 30-second TV Spots, two 15-second spots and a full length theatrical trailer. Rounding off the disc are cast and crew profiles, each accompanied by 3 minutes worth of behind the scenes footage and character info.



Disc 2:

(26.28) - First up is a fairly intimate look at the production, in that it doesn’t just stick to behind the scenes footage but also features Takanori Jinnai talking plenty about his film. In fact he’s pretty much the main focus throughout as we also watch clips of him directing his cast, with cast members themselves getting very little mention aside from the opening footage at a theatrical screening.

(49.29) - Much more of a hands-on approach we’re taken behind the scenes once more, but with greater emphasis placed on the actual hockey and skating. The kids are also introduced and naturally we spend plenty of time with them as they’re put through their paces for some rigorous training. Clearly worn out but not discouraged it’s quite impressive to see them put in so much effort, and they’re a fun little group, showing some very real support for one another, especially during Takashi Tsukamoto’s emotional birthday surprise

(59.58) - Another piece taking place toward the end of December 2007, this TV special set within a mall invites principal cast members Moriyama Mirai and Kato Rosa along for an interview, while the kids manage to get a wave in in the background - though they‘re given more attention toward the end of the feature. It’s plenty heavy on the film clips to pad things out a bit, before it moves on by the half-way mark to show press-screening cast and crew interviews. This is one of the better examples of such as thing, as these types of features tend to be mere fluff material lasting all of a few minutes. Takanori Jinnai has a few more moments and he comes across as a really great guy, with a fun personality and plenty of enthusiasm for his work.


Overall

Smile Seiya no Kiseki might not amount to much when it’s so clearly inspired by dozens of similarly themed movies before it, but it's delivered with conviction and has more than enough humour to turn it into an overall fun piece of work. A perfectly simple and entertaining feature which will easily while away a good two hours.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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