Biographical films, especially ones that revolve around triumphs of the human spirit, can range from truly inspirational (The Pursuit of Happyness ) to manipulative award-bait (The Blind Side ) to unmitigated disasters (the agonizing Patch Adams ). But very few of those films show a comedic side and this is where Flying Colors comes in. Refusing to take an overly serious detour and dwelling on the absurd (yet true) side of the real-life story of student Sayaka Kobayashi and her mentor Nobutaka Tsubota, Flying Colors is entertainment for the masses with plenty of help from the likable leads and Nobuhiro Doi’s sensitive direction that makes the story more than just TV drama fodder into something that is quite inspirational, for an underdog film as well as an biographical film.
Kasumi Arimura stars as Sayaka, a social misfit who has gone through multiple school transfers due to her lack of social skills in making friends. She occasionally gets herself into trouble (at one point, she is suspended for carrying cigarettes) but what really stops her in her tracks is her lack of education. Technically a second-year high school student, her intelligence level is that of a fourth grader. As her university entrance exam veers closer, her mother (Yo Yoshida) sends her to Seiho Cram School, where Sayaka meets Yoshitaka Tsubota (Atsushi Ito). Having heard of her situation, he wants to make sure that she enters the higher education institution of her choice, Keio University, which also happens to be the hardest to get in. Facing many obstacles, like the discrimination of her peers, her berating father (Tetsushi Tanaka) who calls her an airhead, as well as herself, she becomes determined that she will succeed.
Does she succeed? Of course! It wouldn’t be a famous true story if she didn’t. And it’s right there in the title of the source material based on the true event, which is loosely translated as How a Gal at the Bottom of the Class Managed in One Year to Raise Her Standard Score by 40 Points and Pass the Entrance Exam to Keio University. But movies with predictable plots are still worthwhile viewing if the execution is above reproach and this is where Flying Colors succeeds with… you know the rest.
First off, the actors. Having been a bit annoyed with her overly cutesy performance in Strobe Edge (2015), Arimura is fantastic as Sayaka. Showing way more acting chops than one would anticipate, she plays both ditsy and determined sides of her character with aplomb. But it is not her eagerness in her performance that makes her stand out, it is her subtlety that makes her memorable. Her portrayal could’ve easily have been seen as a cartoon but she makes her character surprisingly human. Atsushi Ito is great as Yoshitaka, a geeky school head who has patience levels through the roof. The two complement each other really well and their tutorials are by far the best moments in the film. Shown with amusing animation overlays and unbelievably absurd moments of obliviousness (the Santa Claus joke had me in stitches), I’m still laughing thinking about it. The supporting cast all fill their roles nicely, with the standouts being Yoshida and Tanaka as Sayaka’s parents. The latter gives punch to the drama scenes with Arimura capably keeping up.
Another factor that makes the film rise above its predictability is Doi’s direction. Having only seen one of his films – the amazing Be With You (2004) – Doi places the same subtle approach to Flying Colors as he does to that earlier feature. The film could’ve easily have been manipulative, cheap and agonizingly didactic, Doi manages to turn it into something inspirational, funny and emotionally rewarding. There’s a scene later in the film where Yoshitaka, alongside Sayaka, stands up to her high school teacher, who had previously frowned upon her. Surprisingly, it never comes off as cheesy but it comes off as cheer-worthy. All the simple themes, like triumphing through adversity, are handled with a light touch (like the lack of distracting music or overacting, monologues or overt didacticism) and it makes the film a lot more effective in the climax.
Flying Colors does have a few flaws. For example, some of the jokes are so esoteric that they could only work for the domestic audience (the English subtitles clearly struggle with translating some of them). And for those expecting a serious portrayal of a true story such as this will be disappointed. The predictability could also be a turn-off for some since one can easily recite every major plot point from beginning to end. But those looking for a film by walking the path rather than knowing the path (Matrix reference, hehehe) will be rewarded with a very funny and inspirational crowd-pleaser.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.