When the Curtain Rises (Japan, 2015) [JFF2015AU]
When the Curtain Rises is a high school slice-of-life drama that stars the popular J-Pop idol group Momoiro Clover Z in the lead roles and is directed by the filmmaker that made Summer Time Machine Blues (2005). But he also made the wretched Shaolin Girl (2008). I’ve seen Momoiro Clover Z in a film before, the very funny found footage horror Shirome (2010), which revolved around following the idol group exploring a seemingly haunted place, but they were playing themselves. So, I expected When the Curtain Rises to be quite crappy and had my expectations low. But almost miraculously, my fears were entirely unfounded. When the Curtain Rises is a subtle and understated high school drama with good performances from Momoiro Clover Z and surprisingly understated direction from Katsuyuki Motohiro.
Saori (Kanako Momota) is a talented high school student who is stuck in a rut after having gone through, with her acting troupe (Shiroi Tamai, Reni Takagi, Ayaka Sasaki, and others) another loss in a drama competition. After the arrival of a talented new teacher Ms. Yoshiok (Haru Kuroki) as an inspiration, she and her troupe are ecstatic to prepare as they again compete in another drama competition. The troupe go through many arduous mental and emotional journeys as they train and hone their skills, but even with support of their immensely talented teacher and their will to succeed, will they ever reach their far-reaching goal?
Knowing what the idol group Momoiro Clover Z can be like, I was worried that it would be hard to get into their acting skills. Oddly, it was really easy. First off, I found it funny to see the group in a film playing high school students learning how to act. Seeing as this is their real acting debut, I couldn’t help but laugh a little. But the story gives ample opportunities for the actresses and they do quite well with what they have to work with. Momota is a great lead as she conveys the perfect balance between Saori’s determination, cheerfulness and nervousness. She is the best performer out of the group, which is fitting since she is the lead. Ariyasu is quite magnetic as Etsuko, the newcomer of the acting troupe and the scene she has with Momota on the train station is one of the film’s best scenes, when they reveal their dreams and ambitions as well as what they went through. The rest of the cast are funny and amusing in their own right (Reni Takagi is a bit of a hoot as Grr) but the best actor in the entire film is Kuroki, who as the new drama teacher. Following her great performance in The Little House (2014), her turn in When the Curtain Rises is surprisingly authoritative and maternal, especially when you consider her age (She was only 24 while filming).
The acting was surprisingly good but what was even more surprising was how subtle and understated the storytelling was. Most of Motohiro’s films are not paragons of subtlety – except perhaps Go Find a Psychic! (2009) – but his direction here works wonders with the story. Having an understated touch ensures that the events of the story never feels faked or obviously scripted that it becomes laughable. Every moment that the characters are victorious or need to be motivated feels earned and it definitely adds to the ending, which I was surprised with the execution of it. The ending is clearly showing that it is the journey the characters go through which is important, not the destination. His understated touch also has an effect on the actors, since they are reined in of their cuteness (until the end credits, that is), as well as the quiet musical score and the beautiful cinematography that exudes nostalgia. However, there is a brief scene when Saori and her acting troupe are buckling under the pressure, which uses vivid colours, POV shots, Dutch angles and shaky-cam. All the actors are overacting, and I credit Motohiro for not having this type of acting present throughout the film. I also loved the fact that despite the fact that, although the film is about high school girls, there’s no story about liking or pining for a guy.
The understated feel can be a bit of a problem, though. At times, the film does run longer than it should and some of the story could be cut out with no effect, such as a subplot involving Yukko’s jealousy towards Etsuko hanging out with Saori. Also, the pop music (which probably is contractual) feels out of place and slightly hinders the ending – the ending should have held out on the music for a bit to make the climax more satisfying.
Despite these flaws, the performances are likable, charming, and refreshingly genuine, nothing in the film feels fake or obviously scripted, and the direction is subtle, yet affecting, while the score and the cinematography are beautiful. When the Curtain Rises is a very good film and a great acting platform for Momoiro Clover Z that exceeded my admittedly low expectations.
When the Curtain Rises is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.