Film Review: Shashin Koshien Summer

Snapshots of a Hokkaido Summer
Film Review : “Snapshots of a Hokkaido summer”


Well, this was bound to happen wasn’t it? Japan’s love of photography and high school dramas has finally come together in a feature film. Making it’s world premier at this years’s Tokyo International Film Fest, written and directed by Hiroshi Sugawara is Shashin Koshien Summer. Here in Japan there have been beloved high school dramas in the form of animation, comics, TV shows and of course film, focusing on just about every club activity in school. Some of the more popular and beloved stories revolve around volleyball, basketball, tennis, swimming, the brass band, even calligraphy and now the Photography club gets their due with Shashin Summer.

A film surrounding the photography club must tread a fine line. Unlike the typically more popular high school clubs, such as soccer, basketball, tennis and others, showing students in the act of shooting a photo can never reach the excitement and drama of shooting the game winning shot with everything on the line and legions of fans cheering on our protagonists. As much as taking a good photo is a skill, the live act of doing so simply doesn’t make for a spectator worthy event like sports or other games do.

A movie about photography club has the potential to fail in either showing too much of the act of taking pictures or choosing to cut too much of the photography aspect out of the film and focusing on the drama between the students. A challenge in a film like this is in making photography look interesting and something to get outsiders passionate about, much like other successful sports movies do.

At times I had trouble trying to determine who the target audience for a film like this is. For myself, not being a a big fan of high school dramas or photography, I found the film didn’t do a great job of speaking to the uninitiated. If you aren’t already interested in photography or tales of the roller coaster of emotions high school students emote daily, this film won’t change your mind on either genre.

The plot setup is simple. Eighteen high schools across Japan compete in teams of three in the yearly national photography contest in a small Hokkaido town. This part is based on reality, as the event and the town made famous for the yearly national contest really do exist. The film dramatizes the rest.

Instead of focusing on every team in the contest, our movie sticks with the teams from Tokyo and Osaka. Like thousands of tales before it, the plot chooses to go the David vs. Goliath route. Our Osaka team of all girls has been competing in the national championship for years and have to struggle to select 3 members to represent this year’s team in Hokkaido. Our Tokyo team on the other hand barely manages to get 3 people interested in photography in their school and are thrilled to even make it to Hokkaido competing for the national championship. Without giving too much away, for those of you with a keen interest in photography or teen dramas, suffice it to say both teams hit more than a few snags along the way, tears are shed, lifelong memories are made and nothing goes quite like it was planned.

Along for the ride with our two teams are their teacher coaches. They too engage in their own trials and tribulations as their students struggle to take and select the perfect photos. Another key segment of the film is the judging section, where the panel dissects each group’s photos. The judges in the film, as we learn at the end of the film, are based upon real people. During the end credits it compares the real judges to the actors playing them (they look strikingly similar).

Seeing some of the documentary footage of the actual event at the end of the film was actually more interesting than large parts of the film, which was troubling for me. The actual event has more than 25 years of history and from the looks of it, there appears to be plenty of footage available. The overly emotional acting and dramatic story, combined with the good looks of our main actors (who are supposed to be the misfits of their school, who joined the photo club instead of a popular one like sports or music) didn’t quite work for me. Being a lifelong documentary fan however, I would watch something about the actual event and the kids who participate in it in a second.

The actors, while all sufficient for their roles, didn’t really stand out, except for a couple of the more seasoned actors thrown into the mix. Yoko Akino plays the Osaka girl’s coach with a grace, strength and sureness about her. She is one of the saving graces of the film along with a minor role played by the great Sonny Chiba. Chiba plays a woodworker in the small Hokkaido town the contest takes place in. While his backstory is a bit over the top, involving the death of a previous student contestant years ago, Chiba as always, is strong, confident and powerful in his performance and maybe reason enough for some of his fans to check out this film.

Despite the interesting true aspects of the story, including the documentary footage of the actual event and the appearance of the great Sonny Chiba in the film, Shashin Koshien Summer is a film I can only recommend to a very small cross section of fans of photography and teen dramas. Our director Hiroshi Sugawara must have a strong passion for both to make this film, but neither aspect really worked in the end for me. As I said before, I think the story of this contest and the small Hokkaido town that hosts it every year would be better suited to a documentary.

I rate this one 2.8 smashes out of 5

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James Mallion

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