When’s the last time you had pure fun at the movies? For a lot of us, it has probably been at least 1.5 years, given the whole global health pandemic that has been shutting down theaters and prompting distributors to withhold the types of movies that may deliver such joy (please, hold on Bond, please). Throughout 2020 and early 2021, the state of the industry sort of meant only extremes were released—prestige dramas vying for hardware and big budget blockbusters that cost so much they must push ASAP for ticket sales or a big streaming deal. Stumbling upon the unfettered pleasure of, say, something like Palm Springs became a rarity.
But if you can find It’s a Summer Film!—a genre mashup from Japan that’s centered on some samurai-obsessed high school girls—prepare for 90+ minutes of nonstop grinning. This film recently screened as part of Fantasia Fest, perhaps the world’s finest genre film event. It’s a festival that routinely features the type of work that catches viewers off guard but ends up landing among the year’s best (see The Columnist, from 2020). Within another unusual film year in progress, It’s a Summer Film! has already comfortably secured that very fate. In fact, it might be one of the most feel-good films we’ve come across in the last five years (up there with Bill & Ted 3, Coco, a documentary about Highlights for Children, and a high school zombie Christmas musical).
Filmed on (maybe) iPhone
Barefoot loves movies—so much so that she’ll stick it out with film club even when popular girl Karin’s derivative rom-com wins the group vote to become this year’s project. But if things were up to Barefoot, she’d be producing her own script, a passionately penned ode to classic samurai films called Samurai Spring. That’s the stuff that gets her out of bed in the morning, and it’s what she watches constantly outside of school with her pals Kickstand (an Astronomy Club-loving gearhead) and Blue Hawaii (a secret rom-com admirer with excellent Kendo skills). Barefoot casually references Zatōichi or Gate of Hell the way others her age might talk about Taylor Swift or BTS; she swears her grandmother claimed Ichikawa Raizō as a friend.
Kickstand and Blue Hawaii know this, which is why they can’t let poor Barefoot sit idle through 50 takes of “I can’t hear you / I love you!!!” They hatch a plan to stage a pirate production, scraping together Samurai Spring using some of their school’s other misfits as cast and crew (the kid who looks like he’s 30 would make a great villain; the punk guy who keeps modding his bike could probably handle lighting!). Kickstand can man the smartphone camera, Blue Hawaii can choreograph the fight scenes, and Barefoot will handle the script and direction. The goal? Usurp Karin’s shlock (“A film should be able to say I love you without words, say it too many times and it becomes avante-garde,” says Barefoot) by swapping out her film for a surprise screening of their own at the big year-end club festival.
There’s merely one tiny problem: Samurai Spring needs the right lead, someone who can be vulnerable and strong (and “also hot,” as Barefoot’s pals remind her). Luckily, Barefoot and Kickstand have noticed a newer guy at school named Rintaro, who’s pretty to the point even Barefoot can’t deny it. It takes some over-the-top effort to convince him, but the young now-actor reluctantly agrees to be the clay for Barefoot’s exquisite samurai vision. It’s just… something is a little weird with that one. He’s never heard of Netflix? Never eaten a marshmallow before, either?
More films need samurai overtones
I was enamored by It’s a Summer Film! almost immediately. Writer/director Sôshi Masumoto has taken the genres or societal subcultures he’s (presumably) in love with and crafted a debut film that affectionately combines them in clever ways. This is an ode to film nerdery, to teen movies, to rom-coms, to AV clubs, to a very excellent subgenre of sci-fi I am laboring not to spoil. The script is great, filled with enough breadcrumbs so that each second and third act development lands as a surprise but not an outright shock. Masumoto’s writing is perhaps a real-life analogue to the blood, sweat, and tears Barefoot puts into Samurai Spring within the film. (He’s just the latest filmmaker who started out making music videos and commercials only to nail his first full-length opportunity; see also Andrew Patterson with The Vast of Night and Aneesh Chaganty with Searching.)
If “ode to genre” sends chills down your “Uh oh, I’ve seen Ready Player One” spine, though, fear not. It’s a Summer Film! has real characters and an engaging story on top of all the references to Shintaro Katsu. The friendship between Barefoot, Kickstand, and Blue Hawaii will bring to mind other great female friendship adventures, like Booksmart or Whip It! They accept each other for who they are, even if they recognize each other’s shortcomings or pain points and sometimes have to act in conflict. Barefoot herself (played by Marika Itô) may initially strike you as annoyingly counterculture by choice, but she (and Itô’s performance) reveals herself to be incredibly genuine. This is a young woman increasingly becoming comfortable in her skin. Barefoot discusses themes and motifs of her beloved samurai stories with a depth that demonstrates this isn’t someone trying on a Nine Inch Nails shirt for style points (and those insights help viewers who are less familiar with that canon appreciate the ways It’s a Summer Film! echoes it by the end).
There are a number of sequences that I’ll be describing for weeks on end to anyone willing to listen. The (inevitable) final samurai fight happens in such an organic yet fitting way for these school cinema-heads. The glib glimpses of Karin’s extremely teen-written rom-com stay consistently funny. And I remain a sucker for pop culture centered on AV Club kids working their way through the hiccups, which Barefoot and co. encounter plenty of. (Her turn as a Fincher-like director in particular is delightful.)
Almost immediately after finishing It’s a Summer Film!, it became so easy to imagine some deep-pocketed US producer catching wind of this, purchasing adaptation rights, and doing a new English-language version. Closing my eyes, I saw Emma Stone circa Easy A in the lead role, and maybe the central films would be flipped to “sci-fi” instead of “samurai.” That’s basically what happened to The Guilty (coming to Netflix this fall with Jake Gyllenhaal!), so no problem. But this original film is so endearing and fun as is, I hope instead it lands on a streaming service with a massive subscriber base before 2022. In the meantime, can someone get this movie programmed as part of an Alamo Drafthouse theme month or something? Where are you, Neon and A24?
It’s a Summer Film! recently screened as part of the 2021 hybrid edition of the great genre event, Fantasia Fest. The film is in theaters in Japan but continues to play the festival circuit elsewhere, including the 2021 JAPAN CUTS event where it’s available VOD until September 2. The most up-to-date availability can likely be found on the film’s official website (note it’s in Japanese without a language option, but you can always try Google Translate).
Listing image by Fantasia Fest