Schoolgirl Complex (Sukûrugâru konpurekkusu: Hôsôbu-hen)

Japan (2013) Dir. Yûichi Onuma

I know what you are thinking: a Japanese film about schoolgirls can only mean one thing. Well, you may be partially right yet at the same time slightly off course. This is a tender coming-of-age tale where any sexualisation of the young female cast is solely in the prurient mind of the viewer.

At an all female high school many of the senior students of the Broadcast Club will be moving on after graduation. Incumbent club chief Manami Shintani (Aoi Morikawa) is preparing the group for the upcoming Arts Festival when a new member Chiyuki Mitsuzuka (Mugi Kadowaki) decides to join the club. Taciturn and sullen looking Chiyuki does little to ingratiate herself to the others, doing nothing for the first session or interacting with anyone.

For some reason Manami finds herself drawn to Chiyuki, giving her permission to skip the club if she wants which upsets the other members, especially sub-chief Kazumi Oda (Aoi Yoshikura) who admonishes Manami for her weak leadership. As Manami tries to get to know Chiyuki better she becomes overwhelmed by her feelings for her, but Chiyuki’s life is more complicated than she lets on.

Schoolgirl Complex based rather unusually on a photobook of the same name by so-called “fetish” artist Yuki Aoyama, whose collections of people in uniform – male and female – have both delighted and befuddled in equal measure. Some of Aoyama’s shots have been faithfully reproduced in the film creating some unique and provocative tableaux around which director Yûichi Onuma and screenwriter Shin Adachi have crafted a quietly sensitive and emotional story.

Whilst it is true the girls aren’t overtly sexualised in a gratuitous and exploitative manner, some of the shots lifted from Aoyama’s work are quite teasing and might be construed as provocative. The skirts worn are short – it is set during a hot summer – and the opening montage shows of girls in a soft focus haze or suggestively shadowy set-up but really the tone is artistic and not fetishistic scopophilia.

The bread and butter of this film is the story which tackles the familiar life trial of burgeoning sexual desires. Again this is handled delicately and refrains from graphic titillation, instead setting the scene and allowing the audience to imagine their own ending. As far as “lesbian” schoolgirls go this is the least sexy film on the subject so anyone a Japanese version of Blue Is The Warmest Colour will be very disappointed.

On the opposite side of the coin the story isn’t egregiously cute either, with the cast made up of “average” looking girls instead of future models. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner but even with a former member of J-Pop army SKE48 on board they could all easily pass for regular schoolgirls.

With the all girls school setting and only one prominent male role, the Sapphic developments are inevitable given the story told, which bears fruit during an admittedly cheesy and overly melodramatic denouement. The theme might hint at same sex love but the true message is that of the power of friendship.

Because the girls are at that awkward age they don’t actually know what they want but when push comes to shove they settle for being friends over lovers. Chiyuki is an interesting catalyst as she already has a classmate admirer in Mayu Nishino (Ayuri Konno) who reveals to Manami that Chiyuki in fact has a loser boyfriend Yukiya (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who bullies her for money.

Despite her androgynous looks and surly demeanour, Chiyuki crumbles every time she meets up with Yukiya with whom she tries to split up, yet this doesn’t stop her from subtly making advances towards Manami. Meanwhile Manami has an admirer of her own right under nose, best pal and second sub-chief Ai Morino (Maaya Kondo) who is torn between her feelings for Manami and not spoiling her apparent happiness from being with Chiyuki.

Not the most original story, granted, but it plays out at a gentle pace and at 95 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome either. There is a distinct lack of heavy drama and mid-film insurmountable crisis point – outside of whether Chiyuki will be at the festival or not – but the amiable cast and the natural flow of events are sufficient enough to the patient viewers engaged.

Onuma’s direction is rather distant and unobtrusive for the most part, closing on in a little more tightly on his cast to tease some sexual tension while keeping the mood light and breezy. At first we are led to believe that we are in for a voyeuristic outing but there is air of respect shown for his young actors by keeping a safe distance once their roles have been established.

The incorporation of Aoyma’s photos ranges from the blatant to the subtle; a great example is a replicated shot of a girl hanging out of a classroom window which here sees Ai doing the same but slinking out first like Sadako from Ringu, scaring her classmates away! We are also treated to an insightful look at Japanese school clubs, and how they are just as disciplined as if there were in class, a world away from the loosely run version we see in anime.

With the average age of the cast members being 17, the performances are very believable and display much dramatic maturity. In her film debut Aoi Morikawa infuses Manami with the requisite bubbly glee of a schoolgirl yet makes for an empathetic confused young woman. Maaya Kondo delights as the comical Ai, eventually revealing her serious side during an emotional confession but it is Mugi Kadowaki’s ambiguous Chiyuki that drives the story and the film, masterfully giving nothing away about her character.

There are times where Schoolgirl Complex doesn’t quite know what it is aiming for or how to get there but considering the unorthodox source material, this unique and ambitious experiment deserves kudos even if it isn’t for everyone.