WTF ASIA 2: Swing Girls (2004)

Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention; sometimes, it is laziness.

For Free on Youtube.  Approximately 105 minutes. TO BE SCREENED ON RABBIT SATURDAY APRIL 28 AT 10:00 PM EST.  Certainly, not all of you will be watching Infinity War at that time.


Tomoko is an utterly unremarkable high school girl. She is mouthy, lazy, selfish, absent-minded, thoughtless, goofy, rash, and prone to give up on things at the first sign of difficulty. She has spent her summer vacation gazing out of the window in remedial mathematics with a dozen other girls. It is unclear why this class is all girls aside from the stereotype about girls and mathematics, but the class is all girls and absolutely none of them are paying attention to the teacher. Anyways, she looks on in envy as, outside, the school band gets on a bus and heads off in high spirits to a baseball game. Around twenty seconds after the band leaves, a guy drives up with the food that was meant for them. He yells at Tomoko that he cannot chase after the bus since he has a wake to cater. As if this were her fault. Desperate to get out of class, Tomoko asks the teacher if she can deliver the food to the band. Naturally, the rest of the class volunteer as well. Through a series of stupid acts, the girls get to the ball game incredibly late and with one box missing. Still, they leave after a job done and a class skipped.

Takuo is the band member who has to pay for his lunch during the game. He has had a pretty bad summer himself. He is the cymbal player for the band and cannot do that well. I am not sure how you can mess that up as badly at the cymbals as he has, but no matter. He had already been thinking of quitting the band even before he found himself without a lunch. Fortunately for him, he is also the only one in the band who did not get sick during the game (their team won, by the way). It looks like the entire band save for him will be unable to make it to the next game.

Tryouts for a substitute band are to be held the next day. But who would want to waste ten days of summer vacation on band practice? Well, there is Kaori, who comes in sheepishly holding her recorder. Then there are Hiromi and Yuka, two punk rocker chicks who are looking for something to do with their guitar and bass guitar after their band broke up. And that’s it. Takuo notices the girls in the remedial mathematics class horsing around in the hallway and confronts them. He blackmails them into joining the band by promising to keep secret their having ruined the band lunches. Tomoko figures that she can use this opportunity to get out of mathematics class some more and, if she plays her cards right, sneak out of band class.

The girls get permission from their teacher and proceed to…um…treat the instruments like toys. I would imagine that those things were pretty expensive. Through another series of convoluted events, Takuo finds himself holding a record of “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. He plays it for the girls and says that, while the group in its current state is under half the size required to make a brass band, they do, ironically, have enough members for Big Band Swing. They have the proper instruments and he can play the piano much better than he can play the cymbals. Pretty much none of the girls seem interested in this idea, considering jazz to be something for elitist fuddy-duddies, and want to hold out for a cooler idea. Only Yoshie seems to support going the Big Band route, but only because she is smitten with Inoue the baseball player. Her…enthusiasm…seems to turn the rest of the girls around, and after Takuo insults their collective lung capacity, they appear willing to go along with his plan simply to spite him.

The initial regimen involves Takuo making the girls (except for the punk rocker chicks) do lots of exercises, including lots of breathing exercises (except for Naomi, who chose the drums because she thought that it would help her lose weight). Most of them start of terribly and there are brief hints of rebellion, but they all eventually acquiesce and eventually get into playing. It is unclear how they learned how to blow into their instruments properly, learned how to play notes, or learned their individual parts for Take the A Train, but no matter. They soon become enthusiastic; Takuo even buys an electric keyboard the day before the game.

Speaking of the day before the game, the band has a practice session where they play Take the A Train. Well…you can tell what piece they are trying to play and they are certainly better than they were a week earlier. Okay, they are terrible, but they seem to at least be having fun. Their enthusiasm even briefly infects Takuo, who should be perfectly aware of how bad they sound. Will they be able to pull it together for the game? Will the fans and the players get swept up by their enthusiasm?

Well, no. But only because the movie is only a third of the way done at this point and the baseball game was never the real story.

This movie is harmless fun. It is full of energy and glee, with a healthy dose of goofy charm. It offers nothing new or special in terms of story, characters, or theme; it just delivers everything well. The humor is a nice balance of ridiculous and low-key, effectively negating much that could be considered flaws. Sure, one could complain about some of the shortcuts that the movie takes in terms of narrative or character motivation, but it sometimes adds to the humor. There is one scene around two-thirds of the way through that practically dares the viewer to criticize it for being unrealistic. You can point out all of the flaws of the scene and complain how it undercuts your own interpretation of the movie, or you can do what I did and laugh and just how quietly brazen it is.

The characters may be thinly drawn and played for laughs, but they are not necessarily all that unrealistic. Teenagers can be aimless and uninterested in anything unless they get thrust into something or given a cause that takes up their time and energy while bringing out talent and creativity in ways that they had never previously considered. They can suddenly become caught up in it and develop an all-consuming passion for it. And it can be anything, something completely unexpected. And, as has been made even more obvious since I first posted this back in October of 2014, there are far worse things for teenagers to do than form a swing band, even if some of the actions that these particular characters take are not exactly on the level. None of these characters, even Yoshie, had an interest in jazz on the outset, but the sense of urgency and purpose, combined with the effort that they had already put in, eventually gave them all a sense of self-worth and collective worth.

The level of enthusiasm that the characters gradually display for what they are doing may be greater than their actual talent (some of their practice sessions can be hilariously bad or just embarrassingly cringe-inducing), but the belief that they could get better is what keeps them going and allows them to improve. The level of enthusiasm that they develop even early on may seem like a bit much, particularly given their abilities, but when was the last time you heard kids be a little bit loudly overconfident in their work? Yesterday? An hour ago? And some of the best scenes in the movie are not even when the kids are performing, but getting in the mood for jazz in public without any ounce of self-consciousness or regard for the strange looks from anyone who can see them. Again, it is silly, but teenagers can do weird and obnoxious things for no logical reason, particularly when in groups.

The theme is not as simple as saying that practice makes perfect or for you to simply do what you love. This movie is saying both, neither, a combination of the two, and something in the middle. Perfection is a pipe dream, and the pursuit of it can stifle joy. At the same time, you will not know if you like something if you give up too soon. You want to become good enough at something to have a good time with it, and then maybe become good enough so that people don’t immediately throw things at you. There is one part of the story that I had initially dismissed as unnecessary, but gradually warmed to. I guess what I got from it was that you don’t have to believe that you ARE good enough to do something, but that you believe that you are on the right track to eventually become good enough. Sometimes misplaced confidence is just as effective as justified confidence to power through the difficult times. And, again, there are worse contexts for that thought process than a swing band.

While this is not integral to the story itself, there is no way that I would not mention this. In real life, the girls you see on screen really were novices when they started making the movie. I have heard that they may have had a few weeks of practice before shooting began, but that was it. So the level of their playing abilities shown at each point in the film are pretty much accurate to their actual abilities. Even if the movie was not entirely accurate concerning how they learned to play the music, its depiction of their playing was spot on. There is no fakery there and little if any playing at being bad. This movie tracks the evolution of their talent. Every wrong note and sour note. Little bits of improvement. Even if the movie did nothing else realistically, this would be more real than many other movies. There are many movies about the making of a band, but there are few movies where the movie makes the band out of thin air. The movie could have had them mime playing the instruments or made a cast full of professional musicians…and the movie would not be the same. This movie can fake so many things, but not that.

This movie is just fun. It will brighten your day. If you are looking for technical perfection, you will not find it here. If you are looking for a wonderful little charmer of a movie that celebrates its rough edges, then this might be one for you.


WTF ASIA 3: Joint Security Area (South Korea: 2000, approx. 109 minutes)


Available on Google Play and Youtube


WTF ASIA 4: Lahore (India: 2010, approx. 135 minutes)


Free on Youtube.