I finally got around to rewatching Linda Linda Linda last week, a Japanese movie released in 2005 I saw for the first time last summer after several people told me “you gotta check it out, you’ll love it, it’s totally your kind of movie.” And it really is. In fact, it might be your kind of movie too (especially if you’re my friend Caitlin, and I’ve been meaning to watch this movie with you for over a year). A touching, feel-good movie about a group of teenage girls putting a band together for a school festival? It’s pretty much a crowd-pleaser, especially for feminist music geeks who like movies.
The plot is as follows: guitarist Kei Tachibana (Yuu Kashii), drummer Kyoko Yamada (Aki Maeda), and bassist Nozomi Shirakawa (Shiori Sekine of Base Ball Bear) have a band and are playing Hiiragi-sai, their school’s annual festival. They’ve got a great set list of covers from The Blue Hearts, a popular Japanese rock band. Problem is, their singer-guitarist has quit the band, leaving them down a frontwoman days before their gig. They need a replacement and are adamant about it being a girl. They decide on Son (Bae Doona), a shy exchange student from South Korea whose Japanese is shaky and has never sung in front of an audience before. They rise to the occasion, with a little bit of struggle and growing along the way. Might sound like familiar territory, but it’s totally delightful.
One thing I really enjoy about this movie is how rehearsal is central to the girls’ interactions. For one, the time and effort they spend in practive, is critical in any band learning how to play together and key to their homosocial interactions. While some movies might document a band’s progression in one “rockin'” montage, this movie devotes several scenes to the band’s improvement, as well as the frustrations and tensions that result from feeling like they’re not getting their sound right. In their first rehearsal, they muddle their way through The Blue Heart’s hit “Linda Linda,” only to giggle at how horrible it was before trying again. Later, we find the girls forced to practice quietly at Kei’s ex-boyfriend’s studio space well into the night.
I also enjoy their commitment to the band. While the girls do have ex-boyfriends and crushes, they choose to balance boys with other issues their band usually comes first. In a key scene, Son is asked out by a male classmate named Mackey at school. The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.
Sometimes the band wears on the girls, and the movie reaches a climax when the girls have worked so hard that they collapse after an all-night practice that makes them late to their gig. Their ambitions sometimes eclipse reality, as is clearly evident with Kei dreams about opening for The Ramones while sleeping through much of the festival. Yet, their drive still gets them to the gig, with their talent ultimately ensuring a rousing success at the festival and the promise of this new band.
I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.
And, of course, we cannot ignore the obvious queerness of an all-girl band who work closely together to perform a song clearly written for a girl from a boy and maintaining the boy’s words and intent. It’s where the movie gets its name and the band gets its purpose, after all.
As there are queer dimensions to the girls’ fandom, they also have an interesting relationship with fashion, ethnic identity, and music history, perhaps in some ways analogous to Mitsuko’s relationship to Elvis Presley and rockabilly fashion in Mystery Train. Kyoko rocks a Joan Jett-style mullet and weave punk fashion into their school wardrobe. She also shorten the length of her skirts, sport funky sneakers, and plays with accessories. Son and Nozomi opt out of fashion-plate status, feeling more comfortable in frumpy attire, while Kei prefers a more athletic, clean-cut look. In short, while they’re all required to abide by standardized dress, like many girls, they figure out a way to create and play with looks that better reflect their personality, and some are clearly influenced by rock music in constructing their identity.
Just as Paran Maum are influenced by The Blue Hearts, The Blue Hearts are clearly influenced by The Ramones. I don’t want to suggest that the Japanese cherrypick through relics and artifacts of bygone western pop culture because they are uniformly obsessed with American culture. For one, The Blue Hearts were active and popular in Japan during the late 80s and early 90s, in large part because they were heavily informed by classic British and American punk.
For another, The Ramones themselves had a similar relationship with their own American past, turning to surf rock and girl groups from the 50s and 60s. For them, while most 70s rock bands were trying to set a record for the longest organ solo, rock music needed the return of the three-minute pop song.
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that the movie itself has an interesting relationship with Japanese and American music culture via the presence of former Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha, who is Japanese American and composed the movie’s instrumental tracks.
As this movie depicts a band’s need to improvise, make quick decisions, and embrace makeshift situations, encouraging girls to be independent thinkers, so to does it showcase ingenuity. A tremendous example of this for me is Son’s ability to find surprising rehearsal spaces like empty karaoke rooms in order to become more comfortable with her voice and the microphone. In a lesser movie, Son’s scene in the karaoke bar would come off as oppressively quirky. Here, I find it touching. We see a girl negotiating with a male employee over the room and witness her becoming increasingly comfortable, if not still a bit awkward, with her voice, an unfamiliar language, and a developing stage presence. That she’s doing it on her own, in a space she’s found for herself, seems as good an example as any of how girls have to be creative and free-thinking for the assurance of their own maturity.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen too many Japanese movies and have nothing more than a cursory, Criterion-approved understanding of Asian cinema, along with its influence and heterogenity. One thing that struck me is how much like a Wes Anderson movie Linda Linda Linda felt in terms of its reliance on long tracking shots, wide angles, deadpan humor, panoramic framing, and meditative pacing. That said, I hasten to add that Anderson has stated an indebtedness to the French New Wave and American directors like Hal Ashby, I’m assuming Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu left an impression as well. Having never seen an Ozu movie at the writing of this post (though I do have Good Morning at home), I can’t help but wonder if Linda Linda Linda is actually continuing its nation’s film tradition and that the only folks who’d argue an Andersonian influence are just Western viewers with a shallow scene of cinephilia.
I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan or an indication of the country’s to education and their status as an economic superpower. So while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.
That said, despite my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and my clearly raced position as an American white woman, I felt the band’s ambition and spunk tremendously inspiring and universal for anyone wants to see girls tear it up. I rooted for them through their hard times and had a smile on my face when they plugged in and finally let it rip.