Flying Colours (Birigyaru)

Japan (2015) Dir. Nobuhiro Doi

I never got on well at school for a number of reasons, but while some of us struggle, others seem to squander their abilities and hope to coast through school without making an effort. Naturally, that will catch up on you and ruin your post-education prospects. It is possible to make up for lost time and rectify this poor life decision choice?

Sayaka Kudo (Mochika Yamada) is a young girl who is regularly bullied at school thus is an underachiever who gets no support from her teachers. So, Sayaka’s mother Akari (Yo Yoshida) enrols her daughter in a better school which has connections to the top colleges for graduation. Because of this assured future, Sayaka falls in with the cool girls and begins to change her appearance and her attitude, opting to rebel instead of revise.

Now in the later stages of her high school education Sayaka (Kasumi Arimura) is caught with some cigarettes and is suspended for not implicating her friends. After being told that she is in the very bottom percentile of the whole school, Akari signs Sayaka up for a unique cram school where the tutor Yoshitaka Tsubota (Atsushi Ito) arranges bespoke programme to help struggling students improve their studying.

An age-old story designed to encourage and inspire, in this instance it happens to be based on a true story from a tutor named Nobutaka Tsubota and his experiences with a student named Sayaka Kobayashi. Tsubota told his tale in a bestselling novel, the title of which is not only extremely lengthy but also gives away the entire story – not that Flying Colours is any less revealing a title.

Presented with a light comic tone before gradually morphing into a didactic but earnest drama, it is interesting that the narrative is told through Sayaka’s journey when it is essentially Tsubota’s story to tell. However, whilst I’ve not read the novel, this does create an impression of Tsubota being a man of high principle and modesty by allowing Sayaka the spotlight instead of tooting his own horn.

That is not to say that Sayaka didn’t do all the hard work to turn her academic life around (spoiler perhaps but this is hardly an unpredictable story) but this really should be just as much a tribute to Tsubota’s teaching methods, encouragement and support. It might be by design to reach out to all the Sayaka’s out there but a few teachers could learn from this too.  

In that respect the Japanese education system, or at least pockets of it, isn’t portrayed in a flattering light when it comes to their students. When Akari is called to the junior school about Sayaka being bullied, the teacher simply suggests that Sayaka suck it up as bullying is everywhere. Then at the high school, Akari is equally appalled when her daughter’s failing grades are discussed with complete resignation for a reprieve.

Of course this is part of the Japanese culture that focuses on the community spirit mentality rather than the individual. In other words, as long as the whole school is doing fine and the majority of the top performing students can keep its reputation flying high, they can afford to ignore a few individuals that fall by the wayside.

Back to Sayaka and while she is not a troublemaker or slacker per se, but her blonde hair, short skirts and heavy make-up don’t scream dedicated student. Unfortunately, like many wayward kids, Sayaka’s home life is less than encouraging, making her escape into the world of fashion and teenage frippery a little understandable.

Akari works all the hours available at a crummy low paying job, while doting on Sayaka and her younger sister Mayumi (Kokoro Okuda). Meanwhile their father Toru (Tetsushi Tanaka) devotes all his attention and energy to turning his son Ryota (Yuhei Ouchida) into a star baseball player. Ryota hates baseball but is too scared to tell his father, while it befalls to Akari to fund Sayaka’s education alone.

It feels like one cliché too many for a film plot yet we have to appreciate that the source material is based on fact, and it is statistically probable that such a disjointed family unit does exist. If this has been tweaked a bit for this adaptation the positive viewpoint is that it might at least inspire one struggling child, or even a whole family, to confront their issues and realise there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Sayaka’s journey is as you might expect it to be – beginning slowly with the usual indifference until Tsubota’s method of relating the subjects to Sayaka’s interests sparks her engagement with studying. The blonde hair soon goes, nights out are replaced by nights in, resulting in a steady improvement of her grades, and a chance of gaining entry into the high profile university Sayaka desires suddenly seems viable.

Director Nobuhiro Doi has worked mostly in TV and it shows in the heavy melodrama of the second half and the episodic nature of the narrative. Perhaps this could have done with a slight trim off the near two-hour run time considering the outcome is hardly in dispute, but Doi does a good job of keeping us invested for the duration.

It is the cast deserving the most praise, headed by Kasumi Arimura, who essays Sayaka’s transition from airhead to bookworm without contrivance or compromise to her character. Atsushi Ito keeps his role as Tsubota on the right side of credible, balancing the earnest nerdish behaviour with the dedication and pride of a serious educator, while Yo Yoshida shoulders the bulk of the heavy drama with aplomb.

Flying Colours is arguably the epitome of a comfortable, exoteric way of sharing an important story with an uplifting message, but its well-meaning grounded approach, engaging and likeable cast and sheer heart makes this a pleasant, easy going viewing experience.

4 thoughts on “Flying Colours (Birigyaru)

  1. I enjoyed middle school, but once I hit comprehensive things went south fast. Sadly my place of learning was devoid of good teachers who could turn around a student’s life. No wonder I grew up to be a reclusive hermit who watches cartoons all day!


      1. Funnily enough where I live there is one school for girls and one school for boys. Gender segregation during my teens could explain why I grew up to be a watcher of ecchi stuff.


      2. I went to an all boys school as my parents thought my social awkwardness would work against me if I went to a mixed school. All it did was make me hate boys more… :/


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