Thursday, April 23, 2015
(From left to right: Tsukada Ryoichi, Kawai Fumito, Hashimoto Ryousuke, Totsuka Shota, and Goseki Koichi)
The concept of the low budget, late night, Japanese mini-series Magical★Boy Cherry’s (魔法★男子チェリーズ) sounds utterly ridiculous: a real life boy band, A.B.C-Z, playing a team of crime fighting, superhero virgins with superpowers taking down bad guy virgins with superpowers through the power of dance?! I went in expecting the broad wink to camera of The Ambiguously Gay Duo but, to my great surprise, the show I was watching turned out to be very Buffy-esque: a supernatural romp (with lots of character-driven humor) about just how hard it is to grow up and find your own place in life.
The origin story of the Cherry’s is the origin story of A.B.C-Z themselves. Beginning at the beginning, A.B.C-Z are an unusual boy band. They aren’t particularly popular or cute or cool or pin-up boy handsome. And despite only having made their debut in 2012, four of the five members are already within spitting distance of 30. The group, part of the infamous talent agency Johnny & Associates, was initially formed back in the early 2000s in order to provide capable back-up dancers for the agency’s more popular acts. At the time they were known as A.B.C., the Acrobat Boys Club, and had just four members: Kawai Fumito, Goseki Koichi, Tsukada Ryoichi, and Totsuka Shota. As their name implies, the four-man group specialized in acrobatic dance moves involving lots of flips and other tricks, fully utilizing Tsukada’s professional-level training as a gymnast. But despite their growing skill as entertainers, something was missing and if A.B.C. had remained A.B.C. they almost certainly would have faded away long ago.
But everything changed in 2008 when Johnny, the Johnny of Johnny & Associates, decided that what A.B.C. needed was a fifth member. Hashimoto Ryosuke. Not only did Hashimoto give the unit a vocal anchor, he gave them something much more important: a narrative. A good 7-8 years younger than the other members and only about 15 years old when he joined A.B.C., Hashimoto had an extremely difficult time fitting in: memorizing songs and dances the others had been doing for years, learning the flips and tricks that were by now second nature to the older boys, and having to give up the admiration he’d always held for them--especially for the sensitive, floppy-haired Totsuka--in order to see them as colleagues. Performances from this transition period are exquisite in their awkwardness. Teenage Hashimoto, all big eyes and gangly limbs, trying desperately to keep up. Kawai (my favorite) resentful at having to share the spotlight with somebody younger and cuter tries to outpower him. Totsuka is uncomfortable being so close to somebody who admires him. And Goseki and Tsukada, ever the professionals, keep things moving.
After a couple of years the group eventually did come together as one unit: A.B.C-Z. Hashimoto gave A.B.C. their “Z,” standing for “zero”, as in the group was starting fresh, from square one. But the addition of Hashimoto did not solve all their problems. A.B.C-Z may have had a new, fresh energy but they were still a unit of back-up dancers and with every year that passed, the dream of debuting as a real boy band with a real CD and real concerts and real music videos, seemed more and more impossible. A.B.C-Z were dancing behind younger and younger kids. But in early 2012 the impossible did happen. The group was told they would be releasing a real single, their debut song: “Za ABC~5 Stars.” Goseki, the oldest member, was almost 27 and had been dancing with Johnny’s & Associates since he was 13--half of his life--and Kawai, Totsuka, and Tsukada were not far behind.
Hashimoto’s integration into the group and their long wait to step into the spotlight have become the story A.B.C-Z tells about themselves. It is their narrative. Learning to accept what fate (or the president of the company) deals you and making the best of it. In the end, A.B.C-Z might not have become superstars (yet) but they have had some modest successes and Hashimoto has become an indispensable member of the team. At 21 years old, he’s grown into a confident, manly performer but the ghost of that awkward 15 year old boy will always be lurking in the background.
The drama of Magical★Boy Cherry’s is rooted in this narrative. The first episode takes place on the 17th birthday of lonely high school student Dogami Tetsu (an impossibly doe-eyed Hashimoto). Tetsu’s life is pretty shitty. Not only is he in high school (ugh, kill me now!) but his beloved older brother Taku has up and disappeared--Tetsu suspects he’s gone walkabout--and he’s got a huge crush on his best friend since childhood, Kasumi (actress-model Shimizu Fumika), who is totally oblivious to his feelings! Not to mention the fact that nobody has even wished him happy birthday.
And on top of everything else, weird things keep happening to Tetsu. Not only does he seem have developed some sort of mind-reading ability overnight but when he and Kasumi are heading home from school, Kasumi is attacked by the mysterious hair-cutting villain that’s been terrorizing their small Tokyo suburb of Hachioji. Kasumi is traumatized and poor Tetsu is mortified. How could he have failed to project his friend from something so… stupid?! But then Tetsu gets a mysterious message telling him exactly where to find this barbarous barber.
Determined to make things rights, but without much of a plan, when Tetsu confronts the follicular pervert--a delightfully derpy faced guy who’d been working at a beauty parlor--they end up getting transported to a mysterious realm, the DT-battledome it’s like the thunderdome but the battles are fought with dance. Understandably confused by all of this, Tetsu doesn’t realize he needs to break out into dance in order to save his skin. But just as he seems in danger of being permanently bugaloo’ed, four guys in color-coordinated “hero suits” jump into the ring. Their sweet dance moves deliver a total KO to the doofy hair-cutting villain and knock all of them, including the comatose villain, back into the real world. And when the costumed guys remove their masks, it turns out that they aren’t just more weird strangers, Tetsu knows one of them, his older brother’s best friend, Date Tsutomu aka “Ben” (Totsuka). Ben and his companions take charge of the villain and invite Tetsu back to their headquarters, a chronically empty ramen restaurant, for a debriefing.
But Tetsu’s shitty life is about to get even more shitty. It turns out that the weird mind-reading thing Tetsu has been doing is real. It’s magic. And Ben and his friends also have magic powers and they’ve teamed up with an old police detective (character actor Suwa Taro, Battle Royale, Ju-On, Ring 2, etc.) to form a crime fighting team. Their mission is to find and defeat yosei (guys who have become warped and use their magic powers for evil) with sweet dance moves. The defeated yosei then get “graduated” by Gabako (Fukazawa Atsushi), a drag queen of “a certain age”, and are never heard from again.
And Why do all of these guys have magic powers? Because they’re virgins. All of them. The crime fighters. The yosei. (Although presumably not Gabako.) If they have sex, they’ll lose their magic powers. So if they know Tetsu has magic powers… that means everybody knows Tetsu is a virgin, too! How humiliating! To make things that much worse, Ben tells Tetsu that Taku, his brother, had also been part of their team until he was killed by a yosei. Tetsu does not take the news well. His beloved older brother isn’t just missing, he’s dead. Killed by a stupid, virgin yosei who is still at large! It’s a lot of humiliation and pain to dump on an already flustered teenager. But in the end Tetsu decides that he’s not going to sit around and mope. He doesn’t believe that his brother his dead. He can’t be dead. Tetsu will join Ben’s stupid team, alright, but only to find his brother. That’s it.
Of course, as the series goes on, Tetsu comes to genuinely trust, and love, his teammates, whom he dubs the “Cherry’s”, much to their chagrin. Tetsu finds that they need him just as much as he needs them. As they battle the city’s yosei--a pathetic businessman with superspeed who robs ladies on their way home from work, a mega-volt generating creep of a scientist--Tetsu realizes that being part of a team, this team, where his contributions are valued, where he feels like he’s making a difference, well, it’s really pretty awesome.
The virginity magic can be read in a few ways. There’s the literal comedy of a group of 20-something guys being forced to actively avoid sex. But in the Cherry’s virginity, you also see men who have been forced into a sort of suspended adolescence, still fighting the oversized battles of their teenaged years. Superheroes themselves are a teenaged fantasy and the grown men playing at being hero are all broken inside.
There’s gentle Ben, who has been carrying a torch for an old crush since middle school. She’s long since gotten married and even has a son but… he can’t stop daydreaming about his perfect romance.
Then there’s the owner of the ramen store hideout, Denpouji Toru, better known as “Souchou” or “Boss”, played by the horsey-faced yet mysteriously charismatic Kawai. Souchou used to be the leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents until his parents died and he was left to run the family business… and take care of his younger sister, Yuki (Yoshida Riko). Souchou and Yuki’s relationship has frayed almost beyond repair. He’s overbearing; she lashes out; he makes it worse. Wash, rinse, repeat. There is no room in Souchou’s life for another woman.
The delightfully smarmy, bleach blond Tsukada plays the delightfully smarmy bleach blond Daimonji Tsukasa. Known as “Hoss” because he works at what’s known in Japan as a “host club”--a sort of nightclub for women, staffed by good looking young men who wine and dine them. Hoss appears to have plenty of confidence but he suffers from severe performance anxiety.
And, finally, there’s quiet, nerdy Demon Takeshi, or “2D”, played by the oldest member of A.B.C-Z, Goseki, who is himself rather nondescript until he’s on the dance floor. 2D is the team’s stereotypical virgin. An unemployed college graduate, 2D has long since given up trying to find a job and wastes his days obsessing over comic books and two-dimensional women.
Over the course of 14 episodes, while fighting yosei, each of the Cherry’s makes a start at tackling their real issues. The happy ending isn’t sex, it’s a job offer for 2D.
But there is also real magic at work in Magical★Boy Cherry’s. Despite the low, low budget--there’s just a handful of spare sets and almost no costume changes--the director, Yamamoto Kiyoshi, does incredible work leveraging his main resource: A.B.C-Z. He finds and plays with their innate appeal, both individually and as a group. Yamamoto uses a lot of close-ups, especially of Hashimoto, who can convey infinite shades of meaning with his big doe eyes. The way he crinkles them in delight when seeing Ben for the first time; the teary melding of hurt and anger at hearing about his brother; the slightly bug-eyed WTF look when he finds himself in the DT Thunderdome. Yamamoto goes for broke on all of Hashimoto’s expressions and they pull on the heartstrings far better than any special effect could. Yamamoto is also skilled at putting together the Cherry’s on screen in groups of 2, 3, 4, and 5. He’ll frame a scene with a split between two and three so we’re watching 3 guys laughing at the other 2 or vice versa. The visual field is never crowded and never dull.
The scripting is also remarkably clever. I am nowhere near fluent in Japanese (and there are no English subtitles available) so it took me about three viewings of the series to pick up some of the clever dialogue and word play. For one thing, the Japanese word for male virgin is 童貞--dou-tei or D.T.-- the letters of which mean, respectively, child and chastity/righteousness. And that is exactly what the Cherry’s stand for, a pure, childlike righteousness. Additionally, each of the virgin men has a name beginning with those letters. So when we’re introduced to a couple of Tetsu’s classmates, Doi (twin actors Hiromi and Fukami) and Domiyouji (thin-lipped dancer Morita Myuto), it’s obvious in retrospect they will also turn out to be magic-wielders.
Dropping into Tetsu’s history class, we hear bits of lessons that directly comment on upcoming plot points. In particular the reference to Roman co-emperors Marcus and Lucius in the episode where we’re introduced to Domiyouji. His interest in Tetsu seems quite innocent at first but we get hints that he is not who he appears to be. For one thing he has a giant 十 or tou carved into his arm. And eventually it’s revealed that Domiyouji is, yes, a yosei but no ordinary yosei he is the scion of a long line of dark magic-wielders and it just so happens Tetsu is the scion of long line of light magic-wielders. Domiyouji wants Tetsu to join him as… co-virgin emperor of the world. He’d asked Tetsu’s brother Taku first but Taku had refused and then Taku died. What will Tetsu’s choice be?
Much like the wonderful Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the show is also packed with humor to lighten the mood. When the Cherry’s are going after a villain who is stealing lady’s purses, Souchou is picked to dress up like a lady to act as bait. Kawai’s body language, arms held stiffly to either side, head at a cocky angle, is hilarious. In another scene, Tetsu asks Ben, quite seriously, if maybe there’s something wrong with his… you know. The two happen to be drinking glass bottles of milk and Ben points to the bottle, points to his crotch, and gives a thumbs up. Totsuka’s half-smug, half-embarrassed expression as he wordlessly conveys his penis size is wonderful. Tsukada is the master of smarmy dialogue delivery but it’s Souchou who gets in the best zingers. Souchou’s magic is “taste” magic and he can tell you what will happen to you ten minutes after he “tastes” you. At one point he gets a sip of some soup Ben had been eating and casually informs Ben that he (Ben) will be getting the runs in about ten minutes time. The dry, off-the-cuff remarks are all 2D. When there’s a yosei on the loose targeting beautiful, young women Gabako expresses concern that she’ll be next… there’s dead silence for a beat, two beats, until 2D drawls, “Yeah, I wonder.” And the scene continues.
Yes, Magical★Boy Cherry’s is a ridiculous low-budget boy-band vehicle but or rather and it’s also a sweet, funny show about growing up. Tetsu may be a virgin but his biggest problem isn’t his lack of sexual experience but his lack of confidence. And the same with the rest of the Cherry’s. Truth and justice only exist in a state of purity can’t be sustained. In the end, real life is more complicated than that. When they give up their powers, the black and white world of magic closes forever but a new, exciting world of possibilities opens up in front of them.
Note from Filmi Girl:
I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.
If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.
xoxo Filmi Girl