by Jason Suzuki
A rom-com starring Fumi Nikaido directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, what can go wrong? Manga, that's what could go wrong. It seems that no matter how skilled a filmmaker and how great of a cast, Japanese films adapted from a manga or anime seem to have a hard time being a decent film. Thanks to the production committee system the projects that have an easier time getting funded are those derived from established properties. With that being the case fan service has become a production consideration. The film might be covering a portion of the plot that spans a whole series but characters who might play larger parts later on still need to show up regardless if that will leave people unfamiliar with the source material scratching their heads. This is something that I last saw with Miike's Mole Song which got off to a fun start but became a slog once side characters kept getting introduced in the second act (I have heard that the recently premiered sequel is quite fun though).
This is a symptom of the larger global trend where adaption must wholly resemble source. This fear of becoming too removed from the original text (or at least too removed in more shallow ways) unfortunately seems to have plagued Wolf Girl and Black Prince, and even then, there are some foundational problems that form or even tightening could better.
Erika (Nikaido) is a high school freshman who pretends to have a boyfriend in order to fit in with her group of friends, a collection of girls who seem more adept at relationships, being that it is the topic of seemingly all conversation. Erika needs to step up her fake boyfriend game in order to quell her friends' disbelief. While out and about with her best friend Ayumi (Love's Whirlpool's Mugi Kadowaki) she eyes the film's lead pretty boy Kyoya - one of many good looking dudes in the film and the first of the ones with hair dyed blonde. In a an extended take Erika and Ayumi stalk Kyoya before she jumps in front and snaps a photo. Unfortunately for her, Kyoya happens to go to the same high school as her and when her friends ask him if he really is Erika's boyfriend he says yes.
In exchange for not tarnishing her already brittle standing within her social circle, Kyoya promises to maintain the ruse if he gets to treat her as his dog in private. She's taken aback the obligatory amount of time before too much suspension of disbelief sets in and agrees in fear of becoming a social outcast (and possibly alone). From here she is thrown into a world of dueling sociopaths - Kyoya has a similar looking rival who follows him around wanting to team up to use the girls that fawn over them - and as expected, she sets out to save Kyoya from himself once hints of the good in him peek out.
The bargain is perverse for a high school rom-com but the film only takes it so far. It should be harder to bring Kyoya back to the light given his idea of a good trade. And there is a dark edge to Erika's eventual fall for him. It suggests a deep loneliness and tarnished sense of self-worth. These two can end up together at the end but it shouldn't be a case of saving Kyoya and bringing his humane side out, but rather the ill-advised union of two broken souls. This reality is even briefly suggested by principle cast members at different points in the film like when Kyoya deflects Erika's confession of love by inferring it's just her brain playing tricks by taking the fake relationship as truth,
What should interest viewers is where Hiroki and cinematographer Yasushi Hanamura (Flying Colors) tag the mainstream melodrama with a more art house sensibility. Long takes and wide shots are periodically used and serve to lessen the melodrama and sense of cliché. Ozu also used style as a way to accomplish this and an avoidance of the over the top is a concern of many a self-aware, lower budget entries in the genre. But Hiroki's film still has these moments and can't hold out on cutting to a close up for too long. He does hold it enough though to make these moments the most interesting as we know what familiar story beat we are seeing but are more distant than what Hou Hsiao-Hsien would do.
Below is a great example of this. Kyoya, after the running-desperately-to-find-girl-he-now-knows-that-he-loves-in-order-to-confess-said-love scene, bares his soul the best that his still distant Mr. X type will allow. See if you can spot him and Erika below.
But eventually we cut to a more conventional shot-reverse-shot of Erika (with glassy eyes) and Kyoya. The playful stylistics never seem to last long enough in the film.
Despite Hiroki's best efforts Wolf Girl and Black Prince feels incomplete as a film and probably to any fans of previous iterations of the story. Looking at a synopsis of the manga it seems that there are many more hurdles for the couple to overcome, meaning this is ostensibly an origin story for a larger romance. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see talented young actors be cute, admittedly Nikaido and Hiroki were the reasons this was on my radar (mostly Nikaido). And if that's all you were expecting then there are moments of playfulness to help get through the two hour running time. Hiroki's film is a mixture of thoughtful and iconoclastic formal techniques and tired anime clichés. A watered down Secretary at the high school level.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.