Oppai Volleyball (Japan, 2009)

The lustful desires of adolescent boys are a comic trope that is susceptible to the law of diminishing returns. What may start out as clever and funny can easily devolve into a routine set of predictable jokes or worse, escalate into a gross-out contest leaving neither the audience nor its creators satisfied. When confronted with the opportunity to watch the film Oppai Bare (Oppai Volleyball), the average viewer might skip over to a film with a more respectable title, but doing so denies him/herself of a rather funny and poignant story. Of course that’s not to say that the film rises above its popcorn flick roots. Oppai Bare is unabashedly lite entertainment fare, but what many viewers fail to realize is that it is just as difficult to make a popcorn flick as it is to make an auteur film. With all this said though, the producers of the film didn’t make appreciating the movie any easier with its choice of title, oppai being Japanese for breasts. Having a title that literally translates into Breast Volleyball makes defending the film a bit like defending the artistic merits of the American Pie franchise.

One thing which distinguishes Oppai Bare from the comic shtick of many juvenile dramas, though is its literary pedigree, having been adapted from a popular novel by Munenori Mizuno who supposedly based his book on a real-life incident. With an already established fanbase, the story’s film adaptation was highly anticipated by many Japanese viewers. The central premise in both book and film is rather simple and reads like the set-up to a dirty joke: to motivate the third-rate boys volleyball team that she’s been ordered to coach, the young idealistic teacher Mikako (Haruka Ayase) promises to show them her breasts if they win a game. The entire film is built around that very threadbare premise, but its simplicity belies a solid performance by an up-and-coming young actress and a collection of sincere comic episodes.

The director, Eiichiro Hasumi, and the film’s producers made a carefully calculated decision in casting Haruka Ayase in the lead part of Mikako Terashima. For J-Dorama enthusiasts Ayase’s name is instantly recognizable and a dependable talent who has worked extensively in both comedies and dramas. Yet that was not the only reason for casting her.

Beginning her career while barely even in high school, a 14-year-old Aya Tademaru from Hiroshima prefecture auditioned for the 25th Horipro Talent Scout Caravan in 1999, won and was awarded a coveted contract deal with Horipro, one of Japan’s largest talent agencies. Then, in a move reminiscent of the star system in Hollywood, a contest was held to decide Aya’s new name. With the votes tallied and the appropriate amount of publicity cultivated, Aya Tademaru soon became Haruka Ayase and never looked back. As typical for many young actresses, though, Ayase had to pay her dues before she could earn a place on the movie marquee and so, like many young female hopefuls in Japan, Haruka Ayase became a gravure idol. For those not in the know, a gravure idol is a young woman, usually in her late teens, but can be as old as mid-twenties, who models for men’s magazines, photobooks and DVDs.  Much like the porn industry, the gravure industry caters to mainly a male audience since these videos and photos emphasize a woman’s sexual attractiveness.  However, one clear difference between a gravure model and a porn actress is that, although the gravure idol is dressed in scantily clad swimsuits or uniforms, they are never fully nude, offering idols with dreams of stardom a much easier transition into mainstream media.

Although Ayase’s time as a gravure model was short-lived and her gradual professional success as an actress allowed her a modicum of creative freedom Haruka was constantly battling against the audience’s preconceived notions of her as merely just a pretty face and body. After her critically acclaimed work as Aki Hirose on the TBS television drama Sekai no Chushin de, Ai wo Sakebu (Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World, 2004), Ayase made a furtive effort to distance herself from her gravure past. In TV dramas like Hotaru no Hikari (Glow of Fireflies, 2007), Shikaotoko Aoniyoshi (The Fantastic Deer-Man, 2008), and MR. BRAIN (2009), she took on roles that emphasized her comic chops and her down-to-earth girl-next-door persona. What this tactic ostensibly accomplished was her once predominantly male fanbase began to be best online casino flooded with female fans. Thus, while fan boys were busy drooling over pictures of her, Ayase was winning female converts by playing klutzy but strong-willed characters in several award winning TV shows. So, by the time 2008 rolled around and Ayase made the transition to the big screen with several high profile roles in films like Kwak Jae-young’s Cyborg She (2008) and Shinobu Yaguchi’s Happy Flight (2008), all of which had her playing strong but predominantly asexual protagonists, she was already a star in many people’s eyes. Thus, one can surmise that the decision to cast Haruka Ayase in Oppai Bare was a tongue-in-cheek joke directed at the male audience by casting a former gravure idol in a role that finally promised fans a peek at Ayase’s breasts.

Of course, anyone who has seen Oppai Bare can attest to the fact that the only risqué thing about the film is its title. Eiichiro Hasumi and his screenwriter Yoshikazu Okada take a different approach by de-emphasizing the locker-room humor that an audience expects from this type of film and focusing more on the underdog narrative that is at the heart of any good sports story. Thus, while the boys volleyball team that Mikako is ordered to coach are the stereotypical horny teens you would find in any adolescent sex comedy, the sentimentality that pervades every scene never turns saccharine. In fact, like in many of the best Japanese films, there is a melancholic strain that runs throughout the film. Mikako is in a lose-lose position: if the boys persevere and win, she will have accomplished her goal in inspiring them to do their best, but of course, she then must let them have a peek at her breasts. And if they should lose, then it would be another blow to Mikako’s sense of validation at choosing the teaching profession. Also, for the boys on the team, the excitement they show playing the game is tempered by the knowledge that many of them are doomed to never venture far from the city of Kitakyushu; that, in fact, the last game they play with Mikako as their coach is also the last time they can act like adolescents before having to worry about entrance exams and jobs.

Haruka Ayase won a Blue Ribbon Award for her role in Oppai Bare and although it is easy to snicker at this decision, the role of Mikako Terashima does require more work than just looking good for the camera. To be able to believably bridge the gap between absent-mindedness and competence is no simple task. Like a true veteran screen actor Haruka emotes not so much with her voice but with her face and body. Mikako’s determination, enthusiasm, and frustration are relayed to the audience by a furrowed brow, a contained smile, or just the understated way that she carries herself. We laugh at how utterly consumed Mikako gets at training the boys and every chance she gets to back-out of her promise always ends with her even more determined to see them win. Also, the blending of comedy and drama, such as when Mikako goes to meet her ex-boyfriend in an attempt to rekindle their romance and ends with Mikako clutching her chest and declaring that “These boobs are not just mine! They’re everyone’s dream!” The scene gets a laugh because Haruka delivers the line with such conviction that we completely buy into the madness.

Although Oppai Bare never transcends the popcorn flick genre, ignoring the film because of its populist roots is the sort of snobbery that gives cinephiles a bad name. The film tackles universal themes like the fleeting nature of youth and the inner conflict between duty and honor all the while offering up a never-ending onslaught of boob jokes. Many of the film’s detractors will counter that the movie is a shameless star vehicle for a pretty actress and, to a certain degree, they are correct. Though Haruka Ayase may have a long way to go before she becomes the next Audrey Hepburn, her work in Oppai Bare shows an actress blossoming as a performer, and in the next few years she may emerge as a real dramatic force. We must remember that national film industries are built on the backs of feel-good movies like Oppai Bare, they are a training ground for the next generation of artists and when all cylinders are firing they offer proof against the naysayers who say that film is a dying form of entertainment.