Japanese universities aren’t a place where you study: they’re a place where you join an incredibly niche interest club, become the best at it, and perhaps even find love… or at the very least a crush. At least that’s the moral of a great many Japanese films, and Tori Girl is no exception. There’s no learning to be had, but there’s a heck of a lot of pedalling.
Drifter Yukina (Tao Tsuchiya) has no aim in life and hates her university, where every male student on campus has glasses and wears flannel. Things change when she joins Team Birdman Trial, the Human-powered Aircraft Society. She thinks she’s teaming up with cute captain Kei (Mahiro Takasugi), but ultimately she must learn to bond with apparent delinquent Sakaba (Shotaro Mamiya), with whom she develops a fundamentally antagonistic relationship.
Tori Girl, with its mysteriously untranslated title (it literally means “Bird Girl”), is Japanese youth cinema down to a precise formula. This is not to dismiss it in any fashion, but if you see any vaguely sporting film, you know what you’re in for. There’s generally enough variation that you can see these films every year and still get something new out of them, and Tori Girl is no exception — although the sheer number of films that feature people training by playing some variation of Dance Dance Revolution is just about the only thing keeping Konami in business.
Yukina is an amusing protagonist who doesn’t get much time to languish in her ennui before she finds her calling. This is only emphasised by her meeting with Sakaba, who changes up the entire tone of the film. Mamiya introduces Sakaba in an incredibly overplayed fashion, pushing the film to a heightened level that it can only temporarily maintain, but it leaves an impression. Tori Girl is light on technical language but heavy on team-building, meeting genre expectations, and ever so slightly subverting them.
Director Tsutomo Hanabusa (JFF 2016’s No Longer Heroine) has a handle on cheerful girls finding their (at least temporary) purpose in life, and writer Izumi Takahashi (JFF 2016’s The Top Secret: Murder in Mind) has crafted a script from Kou Nakamura’s novel that seems to hit all of the right story beats while sacrificing the support cast’s depth of character in forgivable ways.
Tori Girl is a fun and compact movie that combines the best of cycling with human-assisted flight. With a fun dynamic between the two leads and almost non-existent characterisation for its support cast, this is undemanding but entertaining Japanese cinema: a literally uplifting film.
Tori Girl! is screening in Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival, which tours the country between October 13 and December 3, 2017.
Directed by: Tsutomo Hanabusa.
Starring: Tao Tsuchiya, Mahiro Takasugi and Shotaro Mamiya.