Despite its familiar plotting, Shinobu Yaguchi’s comedy finds the humanity in its underdog heroes
“Who the hell wants to watch guys synchro swim?”
“It only makes you barf.”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything short, unassuming and sweet. Waterboys is exactly those things and is very much all the stronger for it. Amidst a pile of comedies trying really hard to surprise, shock, or go “there”, it’s quite refreshing to watch a film that doesn’t want to go too big, or too silly, or whatever.
The focus of the movie is a high-school kid called Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who is the only kid left on the swimming team when the school decides to hire a new teacher, Ms Sakuma (Kaori Manabe). Her beauty attracts all the boys to the swim team but when it’s revealed that she teaches synchronised swimming, all but Suzuki and his friends (Akifumi Miura, Koen Kondo and Haroshi Tamaki) remain. Together, they decide to form an all-male sync team, much to everyone else’s amusement.
After an incident involving dolphin trainer Isomura (Takenaka), the five agree to work for him, in exchange for teaching them how to swim in unison like his dolphins. Meanwhile, Suzuki meets Shizuko (Aya Hirayama), a girl from another high school, but is naturally ashamed of the sport he’s decided to play. All is more or less how you expect it.
What works here is that director Yaguchi ignores some of the conventions we’d expect, especially when the film initially sets out to be quite derivative. I was fully anticipating the moment when the team would crumble under the pressure, the moment when Suzuki and Shizuko get into a fight for whatever reason just moments before the big performance, the scene when Takenaka’s dolphin trainer was revealed to be nothing more than a fraud. And, yeah, they did sort of come, but not in the way I feared. Suzuki was ashamed that he was part of a synch swimming team, and that his girlfriend was watching, but the scene served to emphasise his character’s fears more than add unnecessary conflict. The trainer was revealed to not actually care about the team, but it was only after any of it mattered. Dramatic stakes are kept low, and this is a good thing
The pacing of the film is defies convention sometimes – from immediately eliminating Ms Sakuma in the first act to having the gang split apart and reunite, but only at around act two – which helps keep it fresh. Of course the end will consist of a big musical synchronised swimming moment, it’s still an underdog sports move after all, but it never feels too rehashed, and the moments that are have plenty of good character moments and jokes to distract the audience from it.
And this is where Waterboys shines the most. The leading and supporting cast are all great fun to watch. There’s good chemistry between the main characters, which is a boon considering every scene revolves around them interacting in one way or another. Naoto Takenaka is, as always, an absolute blast to watch and his charismatic performance steals the show whenever he’s on, and Aya Hirayama appears to have been designed and moulded with peak cuteness in mind. Together, they make for some excellent on-screen presences, and without their collectives charms this movie would probably not be as solid.
So what’s bad about it, you may ask? Like every movie, Waterboys has plenty of flaws and the biggest is probably that, despite what I wrote above, a lot of it does feel familiar. Everything regarding the dolphin trainer could very well have come out of a Karate Kid deleted scene, and a few of the antagonistic characters are extremely one-note and don’t offer much to the story outside of giving the leads a bit more motivation. But maybe that’s part of its charm. It relies almost entirely on how much the audience actually cares about them, and succeeds in that endeavour. That and a pretty impressive final swimming performance, that is.
Verdict: Boasting a likeable cast, a pleasant story and some solid comedy, Waterboys doesn’t seek to amaze, but it certainly entertains.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: Some comic slapstick/10
Sex: 1/10 for a couple of jokes
Synchronised Swimming: 8/10
Dolphin-related shenanigans: 7/10
Romance: Thoroughly unnecessary
Attitude towards homosexuality: Surprisingly progressive (ish)
Also known as: ウォーターボーイズ
Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
Writer: Shinobu Yaguchi
Satoshi Tsumabuki – Suzuki
Hiroshi Tamaki – Sato
Akifumi Miura – Ohta
Koen Kondo – Kanazawa
Takatoshi Kaneko – Saotome
Aya Hirayama – Shizuko Kiuchi
Naoko Takenaka – Isomura
Kaori Manabe – Mrs. Sakuma
Takashi Kawamura – Ikeuchi
Hiroshi Matsunaga – Mochizuki
Yuya Nishikawa – Sakamoto
Katsuyuki Yamazaki – Yama-chan
Taiyo Sugiura – Taiyo
Koutarou Tanaka – Koutarou
Makoto Ishihara – Makoto