Manga and anime adaptations are a dime a dozen in Japan. Most of them stick safely to the source material, so they can earn their money back without too much effort and risk. When you throw Netflix into the mix though, the rules aren't quite as simply anymore. Netflix is known for giving directors free rein and without the pressure of the box office looming around every corner, things can get a little crazier. And so a film like Yûki Yamato's Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy [Hotto Gimikku: Garu Mitsu Boi] can suddenly spring up out of nowhere.
If you're a fan of the manga, better think twice before watching this film. I haven't read it myself, but I'm aware of the shoujo manga tropes (comics aimed at young women) and Yamato clearly has other fish to fry than to deliver a faithful adaptation of the story. Yamato is here to make cinema and simply uses elements from the manga to drive her film. Fans have been complaining left and right after they got their hands on Hot Gimmick, but don't let deter you. Their complaints are nothing more than misplaced fanboy entitlement and baseless whining.
The most surprising thing about Hot Gimmick is that it feel young, modern and contemporary. After doing a quick check on Yamato though, it started to make sense. Young directors (Yamato was 30 when she made this film) are quite rare in cinema, young directors given free rein and a fair budget are pretty much nonexistent. All the more reason to praise her for making the most of this rare opportunity. Rather than turn in a simple manga adaptation, she made a film that feels of the now (which, in cinema terms, is at least 10 years ahead of its time).
The story revolves around Hatsumi, a meek and uncertain girl who is looking for purpose and identity. She's exactly the kind of girl guys fall for, and she's preyed upon by several boys in her neighborhood. There's a studious boy who tries to make her his slave, a childhood friend/teen idol who attempts to wow her with the glitz of show business, and even Hatsumi's brother is having a hard time controlling his feelings for her. Meanwhile, Hatsumi is following whoever offers her the world, but she soon realizes that people's intentions aren't always what they seem to be.
The cinematography is stunning, but a little unconventional. There are some lush tracking shots, Yamato makes excellent use of lighting and the framing is unique, with lots of strange focal points and novel cuts. By itself, the cinematography is outstanding, but it's not the star of the show. It's the editing that made me sit up and take notice. It really makes the screen come to life, by taking all the unconventional shots and stringing them together, creating some kind of moving collage that does an amazing job at capturing the mood of a scene. The pacing of the editing is sure to put some people off, both conventional viewers and more seasoned film fans, as it is quite rapid and intrusive, but that's exactly why this feels so fresh and contemporary.
The soundtrack and sound editing are pretty interesting too. The original music is fine, but nothing particularly original. What jumps out are the reworks of several famous classical pieces. They will sound very familiar (and many of them are in fact overused), it's just really nice to hear them in more modern-sounding arrangements. This adds a little extra consistency and it helps to tighten the mood. But again, it's the sound editing that stands out the most. The dialogues in particular are often fine-tuned to perfection, becoming a barrage of sounds rather than coherent conversations. Words are repeated, pauses between lines of dialogue are removed and the effect is simply glorious.
Performances are on point, though actors often act as mere models, especially in the heavier edited scenes. When everything is cut up and half of the time you don't even appear on screen in full, it's hard to give a memorable performance. There are a couple of longer tracking shots where the actors do prove their worth, but they're not really the main focus of the film. Miona Hori is a veritable discovery and should be at the start of a fruitful career, Hiroya Shimizu also shows a lot of promise and has plenty of screen presence. But a true actors' film this is not.
Hot Gimmick combines rather raw and ruthless drama with shoujo tropes. I'm not quite versed enough in the shoujo scene to make any exact judgements, but I did feel many of these tropes were pushed to their limits, to the point where they started to feel like critiques on the genre. It is indeed not always an easy watch, with a young and demure girl being pushed around and preyed upon by a bunch of selfish guys, on the other hand Yamato doesn't just turn her film into a simplistic feminist pamphlet either. Whatever your take on it may be, the film leaves you something to chew on.
Don't expect a straightforward manga adaptation or sweet Japanese drama, Hot Gimmick isn't simple filler or some easygoing pastime. It's a film that demands attention, challenges and weighs. No doubt it's going to disgust and confuse some people who didn't expect any of this, but I loved every single second of it. The cinematography is lush and varied, the soundtrack is impressive, performances are great and the story intrigues, but it's the ridiculously perfect editing that left me floored. People who complain about mediocre Netflix projects simply aren't watching the right films, as Hot Gimmick is anything but mediocre. It's youthful, fresh and original, but it's definitely not for everyone.