Here’s another movie I caught at the ongoing 16th Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne:
Bushido Sixteen (2010) follows two teenage kendo fighters, whilst exploring riveting overarching themes of parental pressure, high school rivalry and most importantly, female friendship.
Riko Narumi plays Kaori, an intense kendo fighter who has been trained and harshly disciplined by her strict father (Shigemitsu Ogi). After losing to the playful Sanae (Kie Kitano) in a kendo competition, possibly by a fluke, Kaori is intent on settling the score and restoring her pride the very next year – when both girls are sixteen and now, high school schoolmates. A rivalry between the girls gradually forms while the national kendo competition just looms around the corner…
Despite Bushido Sixteen employing kendo swordplay, the film plays out to be more of a teen drama instead, or a seishun eiga (youth drama). Before I even begin, I know the Hollywood notion of a “teen drama” is probably something with Mary Kate and Ashley (yes, I’m still living in 2001) or gasp, the Twilight series. But, Bushido Sixteen revolves around the complex friendship / rivalry between two girls. It’s becoming increasingly rare for modern films to portray female friendship in a positive light. The mainstream media seems to swamp us with ideas that girls are swamped with jealousy, and are willing to betray a close friend for a boy, or something of the other. Thankfully, Bushido Sixteen steps far away from this stereotype, and navigates through this treacherous “girlz are evil” terrain.
Bushido Sixteen was originally derived from the novel in 2007 by Honda Tetsuya, and also, a later manga series. The success in the story lies largely in the appeal of the “frenemy” relationship between the two protagonists. Kaori’s stern demeanour is a huge contrast to Sanae’s happy-go-lucky nature. Both Narumi and Kitano aptly display an entertaining dynamic, without it being too forced. Sanae is the “normal” to Kaori’s “misunderstood genius” – it’s a tried and tested relationship but it works perfectly here. Narumi, in particular, is highly compelling and likeable as the outwardly austere Kaori. She lifts dumbbells when on break, while reading novels by legendary swordsmen. Her quiet but intense, determined character definitely draws the audiences in, and we sympathise with her family plight.
However, Bushido Sixteen tends to be a bit uneven at times. The pacing of the film is steady, but progressively grinds to a slow wind-down near the ending. It drags out the eventual resolution between the two friends, and at times, some kendo fight scenes could be seen as unnecessary. Perhaps it’s because Bushido Sixteen follows a very old-school straight-forward narrative, and it’s really not about the action at all.
Delicately made, Bushido Sixteen is still sensitive to the precise physical details and the pressure from competitive kendo fighting, and in doing so, the film cleverly reveals the true, intricate nature of female friendship.
My rating: ***