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Azemichi Road, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Deaf can dance."
4 stars

I haven't seen enough from either locale to be considered an expert (I'd probably be kind of creepy if I had), but it seems that while American movies for and about teen/"tween" girls often tend to have a plot driven by a boy, while similar movies from Japan practically ignore them altogether, focusing much more completely on the relationships between the girls. This in and of itself isn't better or worse, or more or less accurate, but it works for "The Azemichi Road"; when it gets to the sappy bits near the end, it is all about these friendships and rivalries, without anyone being diminished.

Yuki Takano (Haruka Oba) has a hard time relating to the rest of the world; despite her prominent ears, she's severely hearing-impaired. One day, on a lonely visit to the city, an ad for the group Rip-Girls catches her eye; later, she spots a group of girls her own age practicing the same dance moves. One of the girls, Rena (Misaki Futenma), knows some sign language and invites her to join their dance crew, "Jumping Girls". It is, as one might expect, difficult for Yuki to catch up with the other girls, so she practices harder, and Rena works with her - which leads to jealousy from Miki and Noriko, both for how quickly Yuki moves to the front row as the Jumping Girls prepare for a competition and how much of Rena's attention she gets, and from the other girls at the school for the deaf, where she'd been considered a leader before she started spending all her time with hearing kids.

The Azemichi Road is not a complicated movie; it is made for a young audience and the goal is not exactly to impress audiences with its narrative complexity. It's a story about overcoming challenges and how the dynamics of friendship can be both rewarding and perilous. That's not exactly unmined territory, and there's sometimes a bit of a sense that the filmmakers don't want to push too hard: At the moment when Yuki is being treated the worst by the other members of Jumping Girls, the emotional speech comes out, and not just those conflicts, but the ones at school, more or less vanish from sight. Some of the issues aren't expanded on quite so much as they might be; for instance, Yuki doesn't tell her mother about her dancing, and it's an issue, but it's not clear why she wouldn't.

I'm not certain why the filmmakers wouldn't spend a little more time with Makiko Watanabe as Shimako Takano; she's quite good, carrying the pressure of single motherhood without making a martyr of the character. She and Haruka Oba build a good connection even if we don't see them interact directly very much (that Shimako spends a lot of time working and thus isn't always present in Yuki's everyday life is something reflected in their performances). Oba herself is pretty good as well. I love her body language when watching the foreign film that Shimako rents for her versus when she slips the Rip-Girls video in, and how she communicates both being an outsider and having found a place where she fits at once. Misaki Futenma does nicely on that count, too; even before we know her whole story, she gives us the sense that Jumping Girls is a bit of a haven for her.

She's also convincing as someone who knows sign language fairly well but doesn't use it as her native language. Director Fumie Nishikawa and writer Tomofumi Tanaka do well by the deaf characters, seldom presenting it as a diminishing disability while still letting us see how the kids at Yuki's school must occasionally feel patronized. It winds up being an unusually apt metaphor for student cliques, actually; the inevitable "us versus the pretty/popular" mentality jumps into sharp relief. The dancing side of the story is handled rather well, too - I like the tough coach (adult, but too young for us to consider her as a mother-figure), and how the range of characters shows us how much effort is put into it. These scenes also put the focus squarely on how these characters interact in terms of relationships between girls; about a half-hour into the movie, I was wondering if the plan was to forgo male characters entirely, forgetting that we had already seen one or two.

The focus on a group of girls (including a decided outsider) practicing their hearts out brings to mind "Linda Linda Linda", although "The Azemichi Road" isn't at that film's level. It's the junior varsity version, featuring younger characters and playing to a younger audience, and I suspect that audience would like it if they saw it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21738&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/24/10 11:24:59
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Directed by
  Fumie Nishikawa

Written by
  Tomofumi Tanaka

Cast
  Haruka Oba
  Misaki Futenma
  Makiko Watanabe



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