On the Edge of Their Seats (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

Journeyman director Hideo Jojo has made everything from pink films to V-Cinema so finding him at the helm an earnest high school drama full of fresh-faced teens shouldn’t be a surprise. On the Edge of Their Seats is a meticulously made movie that, at 75 minutes, flies by with sharp dialogue and performances allowing audiences to get to know the disappointments and desires of a selection of high school students watching a baseball game.

We are at East Iruma High School and the stands are full of people cheering on the school team in the first round of the national baseball tournament on a sweltering summer day. This is a big deal as all schools across Japan compete to get into the finals played at Koshien Stadium and, with this in mind, the brass band is blazing away to encourage the guys. The drama happening in the baseball diamond is hot but secondary to what is cooking in the crowd amongst a few characters.

Up at the back, in the furthest seats away (the veritable alps of the stands), are students who are not feeling the carnival atmosphere. Two members of the theatre group, Asuha (Rina Ono) and Hikaru (Marin Nishimoto), are nursing their disappointment over a cancelled play. A former player on the baseball team named Fujio (Amon Hirai) has come to cheer despite feeling overlooked. Then there is Megumi Miyashita (Shuri Nakamura), once the smartest person in her grade but now the center of unwanted attention as her position has been usurped by the captain of the brass band, Tomoka (Hikari Kuroki), a beautiful girl who just happens to be dating the baseball team’s star player who Miyashita has a crush on. Roving around the stands is Mr. Atsugi (Rikki Metsugi), the English teacher who is trying to boost the crowd and team with chants.

On The Edge of Their Seats is based on an award-winning stage play created by a theater group from a high school in Hyogo Prefecture (which you can watch here) and it is as talky as can be imagined but the dialogue sparkles with the wit and realism of good natured kids seeking their place in the world as they tease, gossip and dig into each other’s feelings and try to explain the game. As the game wears on, the characters become complex. They reveal frustrations and fears linked to their high school lives and thwarted dreams, situations that have left them feeling dejected and isolated. While they start off lonely in the crowd, they interact and find some form relief in companionship that leads them back into the school spirit and the baseball game. All the while, Mr. Atsugi is roaring away with amusing homespun baseball-inspired aphorisms meant to spur others. While the game serves to bring the characters together, it is never actually shown, but this doesn’t matter as the student’s lives take precedence.

Jojo takes the stage play and makes it cinematic by cutting between different locations and utilizing flashbacks, while the characters are shot from different angles with the sound of the school brass band and the chants of the crowd raising excitement. The blocking and placement of actors is artfully arranged to channel the energy of the situation and clearly translate the emotions from all involved. There are many convincing performances and it is gratifying to catch the little tells from each of the actors that are scattered in interactions which indicate how their characters feel. For instance, Tamiya, through avoiding eye contact with others, reveals her part in the play being cancelled, while Miyashita, a perpetual wallflower, develops into a compelling foil to Tomoka, the most popular girl in the school. It is hardly the stuff of Shakespeare but is treated with enough sincerity and empathy to feel important.

“Life is all about swinging and striking out. So never be too scared to swing that bat,” Mr. Atsugi screams. It proves true in this drama where parallel storylines build to a nice ending as everyone, and by extension the audience, finds their enthusiasm for life again.

On the Edge of Their Seats was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 8 and 9.