Spotlight on Japan: Linda Linda Linda



Once in a while everyone, even the most cynical film critics, come across a film so charming everything else fades away and you can’t help being sucked into the story. The subject might be related to your interests or it might even awaken hidden feelings – or the direction is simply so wonderful. The movie might not be your favorite of all time, but it still sticks with you far longer than most other films. For me, that endlessly charming masterpiece is Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda.

It is an unassuming film, the essence of which can’t be found from its simple plot synopsis: after losing two band members, three girls recruit a Korean exchange student, Son, in order to able to perform at the high school cultural festival. Son happens to be somewhat lonely and her comprehension of the Japanese language is a bit lacking, but nevertheless she takes the challenge. Her goofy antics both entertain and inspire the rest of the band – which includes the cheerful but lovestruck Kyoko, the calm and wise Nozomi and the “short-tempered yet sweet” Kei (as described by Son). It is this colorful and dynamic group of characters that carry the film. Without a strong cast the movie would have failed no matter what the director would have done. Doona Bae deserves a special mention for her performance that has genuinely contagious energy.

What ensues is one of the most believable depictions of school life and friendship: clichés are not only mostly ignored, some of them are even subverted. There are no antagonists and no overdramatized difficulties. However, clichés are always bound to appear and when they do come up, they are executed in a surprisingly effective way. For example there’s a scene in which the main characters fight against time in order to be able to perform. Naturally you would expect an intense editing pattern portraying their struggle, but instead Yamashita lets the sequence unfold like any other in the film. The tension arises from the buildup and the growing anxiety that is the result of the calm editing that makes it paradoxically feel as if the clock was ticking away really fast.

We come to learn both the fears and dreams of the characters – sometimes failing and sometimes winning. Kyoko’s misadventures in love and Kei’s subtle hints at a disappointment in her life are just a few things in the string of unfortunate occasions that make one wonder what will happen at the actual performance. All too familiar problems in communication are present in the film – not only in the literal way such as Son’s rough comprehension of the language, but also through mere interaction between other characters (see Kyoko and Kazuya for example). However, the film doesn’t give them too much emphasis and there are also morale boosts, such as Son’s fast development in not only speaking, but also singing, in Japanese. Despite that there’s an unnerving doubt whether they can learn to play the songs – and whether they are even in the right state of mind due to lack of sleep and psychological problems (i.e. stage fright).

All of that leads up to the unforgettable climax around which the film is obviously constructed. The music performance morphs all the colorful side characters (a nostalgic teacher, a rejected boy etc) into a single huge entity full of youthful spirit and endless energy. The music expresses the film’s themes in the most explicit way and it’s also a key to understanding the characters – since music is the most vital form of expression for teenagers. In one montage Yamashita brings together all the characters – and in the following montage he moves away from the concert to the school’s other parts in order to give the lyrics of The Blue Hearts’ “An Endless Song” more resonance and more universality. It summarizes perfectly the uncertain yet optimistic feelings of youth with a certain degree of world-weary wisdom.

What I’ve written up to this point makes Linda Linda Linda seem like a serious film while it is in fact perfectly balanced between drama and comedy. The extremely dry and deadpan direction leads to surprisingly hilarious and subtle humor that is guaranteed to make one laugh. The laughs usually come as a surprise, but the jokes are far from random despite that – although Son’s weird lines are that sometimes.

Great writing doesn’t make a great film on its own so I’m glad to tell you that the film’s form is great as well – in fact, I think it’s even better. Yamashita’s takes aren’t exactly long although they seem to linger everywhere for a long time. The editing is calm and steady everywhere, but the cutting is done very subtly. The “dragging” feeling of most scenes comes from the sparse amount of actual dialogue and relatively long moments of silence in between the lines. For example, just before the climax it feels like it takes forever for the girls to prepare for the performance – they keep exchanging glances for a long time. It doesn’t only add tension, but also masterfully shows what each of them is thinking about. Son’s delayed reaction reveals her attempt to ignore her stage fright (hilariously juxtaposed to her earlier “practice”).

Apart from the smooth editing, the cinematography stands out particularly in the film. The camera remains motionless when it’s possible, but Yamashita does know how to use camera movement when it’s necessary (such as when Son is wandering around the school at night). The compositions are not only beautiful but also clever tools of storytelling – as they should be in the film medium. Add the sparse usage of music (excluding the band’s performances) and you have a form that relies on calm and nearly minimalistic expression. When additional soundtrack is used, it is used for mood’s extra punctuation (one rather unsubtle occasion is for a joke).

If I was limited to using only one paragraph for this review it would be something like this: Above all, Linda Linda Linda observes the complexities of high school life without being judgmental. For those who can relate to the central themes of the film will get the most out of it, but even those who are outside of that demographic will find one of the best feel-good films of all time and a new tune that will continue playing in one’s head for weeks.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

2 Responses to Spotlight on Japan: Linda Linda Linda

  1. Howard Schumann says:

    I am revisiting this film after five years and I found your review to be full of insight and beautifully written. I thought I had read everything about this film but your review gave me a new understanding and appreciation. Thanks.

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