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Where EAST meets the Northwest

ROCK ON. Linda Linda Linda. Pictured from left to right are Aki Maeda as Kyoko, Yu Kashii as Kei, Shiori Sekine as Nozomi, and Doona Bae as Son, the makeshift band of schoolgirls. (Photo courtesy of Viz Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #37 (September 12, 2006), page 15.

A Japanese School of Rock

Linda Linda Linda
Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita
Produced by Hiroyuki Negishi and Yuji Sadai

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

There’s something about putting a band together that lends itself well to a feature film (and, lately, to a handful of reality television shows). The well-defined dramatic arc and small cast of characters, catalyzed by the raw emotion required to practice and perform a short set of much-beloved music, lies at the heart of such cinematic gems as School of Rock and The Commitments. Nobuhiro Yamashita’s 2005 film Linda Linda Linda follows in these large footsteps, adding the twist of an all-schoolgirl band in Japan, with glowing and memorable results. The film, a runaway hit in Japan, is being shown as part of the Hollywood Theatre’s "They Came From Japan" festival, featuring Japanese cinematic releases since 2000.

With her school’s talent show only three days away, lead vocalist and guitarist Moe (Shione Yukawa) breaks a finger during a basketball game, and the other members of her band are forced to consider either replacing her or withdrawing from the talent show altogether. Though the band is fraught with the petty rivalries typical of adolescents, the other girls ultimately decide they will go ahead with the show, knowing they will have to find both a set of songs and a vocalist to sing them. After discovering a box of tapes from the 1980s, the girls decide to cover the seminal Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts, choosing three songs including the classic "Linda Linda Linda." Now all they need is a singer.

Enter Son (played by the incomparable Bae Nu-Da, of the band Barking Dogs Never Bite and the movie Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), whom the girls know can sing well — but they forget that she is an exchange student from Korea. Son is willing to sing until she learns that the lyrics are all in Japanese, which she can speak adequately, but cannot read. This is but the first of many stumbling blocks tossed in front of the band as they try to perform their "gig" in front of classmates and families.

Maneuvering among the shoals of musical bickering, teenage crushes, random accidents, and the simple logistics of learning three songs in as many days, the girls find reserves of strength they never knew they had, coming together for an emotional and memorable rock-and-roll performance.

Bae Nu-Da is undoubtedly the standout in this ensemble cast, utterly irresistible and believable in the meatiest role, transforming from shy exchange student to snarling, rocking front woman and lead vocalist. But there are many strong performances, with Yu Kashii as Kei Tachibana, the moody keyboardist who must learn to play guitar, and Aki Maeda as drummer Kyoko Yamada, belying the rambunctious-drummer stereotype by being too shy to confess her crush to the object of her affection. Even the minor characters are memorable, playing their roles with requisite high school angst without entirely reverting to stereotype.

Although a comedy, the film is of a subtler variety, with the grainy, improvisational feel of an indie film, further enhanced by the insertion of footage from a student documentary about the festival. In addition to other punk hits, James Iha (formerly of The Smashing Pumpkins) lends his sonorous, emotive guitar licks to the soundtrack, with predictably amazing results. There are languid, pensive moments to the film that slow the pace, and not all the humorous moments translate well for Western audiences, but there are enough laughs and light nostalgic touches for anyone, anywhere, to identify with this likeable, well-made film.

Much as in real life, there are no firm conclusions at the end of the film, no glittering statue presented to the winner of the talent show — undoubtedly because this is a non-Western talent show, which displays ability for its own sake, and not as part of a competition. Yet when Son overcomes her sudden attack of stage fright to scream out the chorus of, "Linda Linda Linda!" and the high schoolers around her leap to their feet to sing along, we all understand the essence of rock-and-roll, both to performer and audience: bellowing out our anguish and pain, translating the nervousness and loneliness of existence into lyrics which may or may not have deeper meaning, but which simply sound terrific when hollered at the top of your lungs.

Much like the catchy chorus, which you will find yourself singing for hours, if not days, thereafter, this is a film that will stick with you for longer than you expect. Unless you are utterly opposed to the idea that rock music brings people together in spite of its anarchic nature, you will love Linda Linda Linda. You may even find yourself wondering who you might call to put together a rock band of your own.