Water Boys (2001)
Nicholas Driscoll
May 3, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

For me, it all started with 2004's Swing Girls. For a number of reasons, I was captivated by that film when I first came to Japan, and when I discovered that there was an earlier film by the same director that my students at the high school adored, I eagerly scurried off to the rental store and dived into the film in question—Water Boys, a hugely popular comedy hit about a boys' synchronized swimming team that spawned an equally successful television series. For me, however, Water Boys is an inferior film that was director Shinobu Yaguchi's trial run before the much-more-charming Swing Girls—and really, the two films follow an almost identical formula.

Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Dragonhead, Dororo) is the classic comedy protagonist—that is, the Likable Loser Who Somehow Succeeds. Suzuki's version of LLWSS is an apparently talentless senior swim team member at an all-boys high school. The swim team is about to die, as Suzuki is the only member left and the basketball team controls the pool for their fly-fishing practice. Just as Suzuki is about to quit as well, a new swim coach is hired at the school—the mega-hot, ultra-ditsy Megumi Sakuma (Kaori Manabe). Sensing their chance for unmitigated ogling, the hormonally supercharged male denizens of the student populace bloat the swim team to epic proportions until Sakuma reveals her plans for the team: synchronized swimming! Their lust overcome by wild horror of embarrassment, the more sensible students bail faster than they joined, leaving Suzuki and four misfits who don't have their social lives to really worry about in the first place. Together, and without the help of Sakuma (who suddenly discovers one day that she is eight months' pregnant), these five dorky dudes must overcome all odds (as well as their dignity and good taste) in order to hopefully fulfill their dreams—and maybe pick up some cute girls... or guys. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Obviously, Water Boys isn't going for realism. This is outright, unapologetic wacky humor. The story is very simplistic, and the humor is broad and eager—and not very humor-accurate, as liable to hit the funny bone as to completely miss the mark and impact somewhere in bizarro land. The acting of the mains is often very funny, with some excellent facial expressions pulled off by our dim-witted heroes, and one sequence involving a slow-motion ignited afro is laugh-inducingly memorable. The climax also is very fun—if you can stomach all the speedos. However, just as often the jokes can be strikingly unfunny (as in a scene with apparently dead dolphins) or even disturbing. In the course of the film, Suzuki and the loser troupe try their dangedest to drum up ticket sales for their performance, and eventually they find themselves in a bar run by the cross-dressing "Mama-san" (Akira Emoto, who seems to be in everything, but might be best known in America for a part he played in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla). Mama-san, in way of greeting, proceeds to grab Suzuki's buttocks by reaching up, sticking his thumb where the sun doesn't shine, grasping firmly and shaking vigorously. Mama-san's transvestite buddy then cuddles with Suzuki's friend, proceeding to chew on his ear. Mind you, this is supposed to be funny, but Suzuki and his nerd patrol are supposed to be high school students (despite the fact that their roles are performed by folks in their early twenties—yes, it happens in Japan, too), and as Mama-san drools over them and, later, comes to their performance to hoot and holler over all the jailbait flesh on display, I became just a bit disturbed and offended. I should note that I am not one to argue that a film should never offend anyone, but if a film does offend, it may as well offend in a well-made or intelligent manner. With Water Boys, however, when it offends, it's just stupid and unfunny.

Speaking of treating homosexuals, if there is one thing that everyone going into Water Boys should be aware of, it is the slavish, unapologetic, ubiquitous use of speedo-style swimwear on lithely muscular young male bodies. The way the camera lingers on the literally dozens of young men and their tiny, tiny bits of plasticky cloth that just barely cover their buttcracks, Water Boys is almost an anti-Baywatch, especially in the end with scenes of slow-motion, nearly nude boys and an underwater sequence involving swimmers paddling just over the camera, allowing close-ups of crotches careening across the screen. If that wasn't enough, one of the main nerds has a love for thongs, and you better believe his basically bare behind makes a couple appearances in this movie. My tastes definitely don't run towards displays of young male flesh, but it is true that, after a while, all the speedos and skinny dudes become downright comical.

The thespian skills on display in Water Boys are consistently enthusiastic, if not always well-directed or implemented. Seeing as I have viewed this film at least four times, I figure I may as well give a run-down on each of the mains.

Satoshi Tsumabuki as Suzuki is our main character. Tsumabuki might be best known in America for his minuscule part in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift as the Exceedingly Handsome Guy—you can spot him in the trailer as the dude who starts the race with an enthusiastic, "Gyo!" Tsumabuki is considerably more popular in Rising Sun Land, and he's reasonably fun here. His character is pretty much vanilla, and Tsumabuki isn't always capable of good comedy—he completely botches a pratfall early in the film. However, he has an affable presence that is quite watchable.

Shizuko, Suzuki's girlfriend played by Ai Hirayama, is a clichéd tough-girl right out of any number of anime. She's the classic tomboy who is physically violent and tougher than her wussy boyfriend. Hirayama's performance, however, is not very interesting—she only has slightly more emotional range than the emoticons on MSN, but at least she has a nice smile.

Kanazawa, as played by Kondo Koen, is the inevitable math nerd in the swim team. He wears glasses, has braces, and is completely defined by his brain—that is, he uses math to solve every problem, and his main purpose is to jump into conversations with superfluous math comments or solve problems with supposedly complex equations, even if it really doesn't make any sense. Yes, he is that clichéd, and Koen's performance usually makes him even more boring.

Sato, performed by Tamaki Hiroshi, is the undedicated, horny slacker with an afro. He was easily my favorite of the initially washed-up synchro team. Hiroshi is distinctive-looking even without his fake 'fro, and his laid-back-yet-expressive performance is very enjoyable.

Kaneko Takatoshi, who played one of the assassins in Azumi (2003), is Saotome, the homosexual outcast of the group and one of the worst stereotypes I have ever seen. Saotome wears effeminate clothes, has bad posture, walks like a girl, wears a hideous feminine mullet (I don't know what else to call it), and weeps over even the slightest discouragement aimed at him or the swim team—this is supposed to be a running gag, and it worked… it made me want to gag, alright.

Thong-loving workout freak Ohta is played by Miura Akifumi. Akifumi is an unusual looking actor who has a somewhat neanderthalish visage and a short stature, which certainly gives him a distinctive look which is effective for a comedy. His performance as Ohta is decidedly hyper, as he is the driving force behind the rhythm of the sychro team. Basically, his character can be summed up with three words: muscles, dance, thong. There simply isn't much to his character, even though Akifumi gives his all.

Finally, note should be made of Naoto Takenaka's mentor role. The ever-busy character actor from dozens of films like 1996's Shall We Dance? would go on to play the mentor in Swing Girls as well; he always seems in high demand, and it's understandable because he is usually so much fun to watch. Here, however, Takenaka's character, dubbed only as "the dolphin trainer," is baffling and even tiresome. Suzuki comes to the dolphin trainer for help after becoming inspired by the way he moves—and that is the strangest part of Takenaka's role. The dolphin trainer is apparently something of a spastic performance addict—when he performs for his audiences, he puts his whole body into it. However, he is apparently also prone to sudden and utterly bizarre outbursts of random spasms when confused… or something. I still don't understand it. He is also a manipulative jerk who, even outside of his mystifying quirks, is unlikable.

There are a number of minor characters that are quite well-done, such as the synchro coach and other very bit parts that come in long enough to generate smiles. Indeed, balancing out the tired main characters and sometimes uninspiring writing are many fine moments sprinkled throughout the film that raise some nice chuckles.

The music is an eclectic mix, with the strongest theme being acoustic guitar infused with steel drums. Other musical cues include a piano-driven theme used over a montage late in the film, loud J-pop, and rock-and-roll-ish themes. It's a strange mixture that nevertheless works fairly well together.

You might say that Water Boys is like a puddle—shallow, but fun to splash around in if you are in a childish mood. Just don't be surprised if you feel a little dirty afterwards.