Sayaka Kudo is the sort like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, except she has real issues and real adversity to overcome if she hopes to make it into her first choice school. She could not even spell Keio University before she enrolled in Seiho Cram School, but she might have a puncher’s chance at admittance in Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.
Kudo was constantly bullied during elementary and middle school, but she found acceptance in high school when she fell in the gum-smacking mini-skirt-wearing clique. Doing shockingly little academic work, Kudo and her friends are at the absolute bottom of their class, but they have fun shopping and doing karaoke. However, when she is indefinitely suspended, her protective mother Akari enrolls her in Seiho, where she will be tutored by Yoshitaka Tsubota, the Jaime Escalante of cram schools. He might be slightly nebbish, but the dedicated Tsubota has a knack for adapting his pedagogical approach to suit each pupil. He will face his greatest challenge with Kudo, given her fourth grade reading level, but she will work with him, rather than against him.
Of course, nobody believes in Kudo besides Akari Kudo and Tsubota-san, least of all her disinterested father. Instead, Toru Kudo obsesses over her brother’s high school baseball career, which puts crushing pressure on poor Ryuta. Her high school teachers similarly dismiss her ambitions, but her hard-partying friends embrace her dream, even when that means letting go rather than holding on.
You might think you know where Doi is taking the film—and you probably have the right general idea, but it cuts way deeper than you expect. Based on a real life cram school teacher’s autobiographical novel, Flying fully explores the sources of Kudo’s insecurities and alienation. After walking in her stiletto heels through the first ten minutes, it is hard to begrudge her choices. It is also hard to forgive her jerkheel father, but Doi and screenwriter Hirohi Hashimoto just might manipulate us into doing it anyway.
Flying is the sort of film that gives just about every character their fifteen minutes to explore their flaws and earn forgiveness. It is a defiantly humanistic film, powered by Kasumi Arimura’s remarkably rich and complex performance. She is not just a bubbly airhead. We see her mature and come into herself. It is a rather remarkable process that puts Witherspoon’s shtick to shame.
Arguably, we learn very little about Tsubota’s private life, but Atsushi Ito’s earnest portrayal is still quite compelling, in a Stand and Deliver kind of way. Yo Yoshida is exquisitely heart breaking as Akari, while Tetsushi Tanaka perfectly pivots as her disappointed-by-life father. Shuhei Nomura never comes on too strong as her potential cram school love interest, Reiji Mori, while Airi Matsui, Honami Kurashita, and Nanami Abe show unexpected grace as Kudo’s Kogal posse.