REVIEW: Golden Orchestra! (2016)

Aspiring violinist Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) attends a community orchestra performance, and is so entranced by their skills that she applies to join them. She makes a mistake and instead of joining the Umegaoka Philharmonic she calls the wrong orchestra, finding herself in the Umegaoka Symphony instead: a group of enthused but jaw-droppingly untalented elderly musicians.

Sumo Do Sumo Don’t, the Masayuki Suo comedy released back in 1992, was a hugely charming and effective film in which a talented athlete unwittingly joins a sumo team of eccentrics and incompetents before inspiring them to succeed against the odds. It was such a successful film at the time that the Japanese film industry has been effectively remaking it ever since. Golden Orchestra!, from director Hosokawa Toru, is one of the most recent attempts. It swaps out sumo wrestling for community orchestras, but plays out an identical narrative and tone. As a result, this is a film with positively zero surprises. Any viewer of Japanese popular cinema has seen the story too many times, and while it is an amiable experience it is also a very predictable one.

Anne Watanabe (daughter of noted actor Ken Watanabe) is an easily identifiable and likeable lead. Chizuro does not want to play in an orchestra of elderly incompetents, but when their conductor Hidetaro (a warmly appealing Takashi Sasano) has a near-fatal heart attack she is stuck there for the foreseeable future. In a very Japanese fashion Chizuro is trapped by social expectation and excessive politeness.

These kinds of comedies rises and fall on the back of the colourful supporting cast, and here Golden Orchestra! is only partially successful. The various pensioner musicians are relatively amusing, but they generally fail to stick in the mind: they are funny without ever seeming memorable.

The film also struggles a little with its various sub-plots, including a half-developed romance for Chizuro and a Romeo and Juliet love affair between two high-schoolers – one the granddaughter of conductor Hidetaro and the other the son of Hidetaro’s arch-rival. The film focuses on each storyline in fits and starts without ever fully developing any of them.

Technically the film is competent and straight-forward. It really is not the sort of story that requires or rewards flashy photography or editing. The soundtrack’s near-constant use of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” – the piece the orchestra are attempting in vain to master – does begin to grate, but thankfully events expand the musical repertoire more fully in the second half.

Golden Orchestra! ticks all of the boxes to satisfy as a simple, hugely predictable comedy. There is nothing original here, but there is a strong sense there was never an intent to be original anyway. It is straightforward, unchallenging and populist cinema. It gives the viewer exactly what it claims it will: nothing less, and certainly nothing more.

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