Review: School in the Crosshairs (Beyond Godzilla)

by Matthew Hawkins

The first film series of note for 2017, in my book, is Japan Society’s Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema. It seeks to present other notable examples of Tokusatsu cinema, which are tales of science fiction, horror, or fantasy that are primarily driven by fancy special effects. As the name of the survey somewhat implies, Godzilla is what’s most closely associated to Tokusatsu, at least outside of Japan, and you won’t find him here, though there is a kaiju flick! But I’m here to discuss…

… or The Aimed School as it sometimes called, is by Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known for House, or Hausu as it often referred to. Given what a sensation his debut motion picture was, almost ten years now (it’s arguably still the most recognizable film to be “discovered” by the New York Asian Film Festival), it’s a bit of a shock that his other works haven’t seen much play since. And based upon the few that have managed to pop up here and there, while are all quite excellent (it kills me that I’ve only been able to see Exchange Students/I Are You, You Am Me only the one time, when Japan Society had their Obayashi retrospective in late 2015), a common sentiment I’ve heard expressed is how his later works aren’t quite as whimsical as House. Well, if you were a fan of that movie’s wackiness, then you absolutely need to see School in the Crosshairs, which is more or less just like Obayashi’s magnum opus except instead of high school girls trying to keep each other alive in a haunted abode, they’re duking it out via psychic powers.

The movie was one of several starring an idol at the time, in this case Hiroko Yakushimaru, best known for her leading role in the original adaptation of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. Here she’s Yuka, who aside from being the most popular girl in class, is also the smartest. Yuka’s close friend is Koji, a boy that’s less concerned about good grades and more on being at the best in the high school kendo club. Yuka wants Koji to get better grades, but is ultimately supportive of his training; when Koji’s parents decided to get their son a tutor and hire Yuka (they’re totally unaware of the nature of two’s relationship; it’s never explicitly stated that Yuka & Koji are boyfriend/girlfriend… mostly cuz idols aren’t supposed to be kissing other boys, cuz that would ruin it for their fans… it’s obvious that they’re pretty close), she ultimately helps him skip out of the house and pursue kendo training, despite it being forbidden by Koji’s dad. Anyhow, one day after kendo club, the pair are walking down the street and a small toddler wanders into oncoming traffic and is almost killed until latent psychic abilities are awakened within Yuka. She would later put this power to use by helping Koji score a decisive victory in a heated kendo competition against another school.

Perhaps it’s the sustained usage of said power, or the fact that it was employed for somewhat selfish purposes, but a silver faced dude all of a sudden appears out of nowhere. Not long after he confronts Yuka after school and says that he knows what she’s capable of, which is the potential to take over the world, and maybe they should hook up. Yuka turns down the offer. Not long after that, a new girl shows up in class; Michiru manages to charm the pants off of Yuka’s male classmates with looks alone, since she’s definitely not as warm and friendly as Yuka. It isn’t long before Michiru nabs the role of student body president or something of the like (more on that in a bit) and enacts some super harsh changes that transforms the entire school into a fascist dictatorship. Michiru’s ultimate goal is to have students enroll in a cram school (or at least I think that’s what they are… again, will explain in a bit), one that’s zombifying students. You might not be surprised to know that it’s actually run by the aforementioned silver faced dude, though what you might not have expected to hear is that he’s actually from Venus.

As noted, if you loved the super colorful and crazy visuals of House, then you’ll adore the look and feel of School in the Crosshairs. There is a ton of super neat-o greenscreen, focal, and stop motion effects at play here. The soundtrack, while not as catchy as House‘s, is still a must listen to anyone who digs early 80s Japanese pop. And it becomes instantly apparent why Hiroko Yakushimaru was an idol; she’s got the looks, smarts, plus charms and is more or less perfect in every which way possible, yet is still very much relatable so you can’t help yourself but want to root for her. Did I also mention the random bits of roller-skating and the monkey? But concerning the movie as a whole, is the former is as good as the latter? While at points it comes within the ball park, it doesn’t quite hit the mark, though I honestly can’t say, because… if there’s one complain I have, it’s how the story was at at times incomprehensible. Though I place the blame on a less then adequate translation. There was at least one joke that I didn’t realize was one and was therefore super confused (plus distracted) until I figured out something was amiss.

But I will say, there have been plenty of times in which the translation job for the version that’s on the big screen was far superior. And even if that’s not the case… everyone who can see School in the Crosshairs, which is playing tonight at 7:00pm at Japan Society, must absolutely do so since it might be your only chance!

[UPDATE] Okay, since the screening has come and gone, along with how many people potentially reading this were more than likely unable to attend, plus how (as noted) the chances of seeing it otherwise are at this point fairly slim… I suppose it doesn’t hurt anyone by presenting the super psychedelic finale to the film? Though, if you get the chance to see the whole thing, please do so!

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