It seems Ryuichi Hiroki is back. Sutorobo Ejji [Strobe Edge] may be one of his more commercial films to date, but where his previous commercial efforts seemed to falter, resulting in unbalanced and slightly disappointing films, Strobe Edge is a superb mix of cute, heart-warming romance and Hiroki's trademark female-centered drama. Don't expect anything edgy or any indie-leaning antics from this film and you might be in for a very sweet, little romantic treat.
Like Otoko no Issho (Hiroki's previous film), Strobe Edge is a manga adaption. While manga adaptations are known for being rather tepid and shamelessly catering to the local market, Hiriko seems to have found a healthy balance between pleasing Japanese fans and keeping international audience engaged. Strobe Edge is still very much a Japanese film, but you don't have to know the ins and outs of the local market to derive any pleasure from it.
Don't expect anything too original though. The core story is a very simple, run of the mill romance that should feel familiar and comfortable to most, unless you've never ever seen or read a romantic film/novel before. If there's anything in the way of a twist, it's that the film focuses on the girl rather than the boy in her quest to conquer love. It gives the dramatic side of the story a slightly different angle, but the bottom line remains exactly the same.
Strobe Edge tells the story of Ninako and Ren. Ninanko has confessed her feelings to Ren, knowing fully well that Ren is in a relationship with another girl. He politely declines and the two decide to remain friends. Inevitably Ninako has to let go of her feelings for Ren at some point, but right when she decides to move on Ren brakes up with his girlfriend. Classic romantic drama that practically writes itself, but for a genre film that's hardly a deal breaker.
Visually Hiroki has made some clear strides forward. At times, the camera work and color pallet reminded me a lot of Makoto Shinkai's work. There's a strong spring feeling to the visuals, with lots of lens flares, sharp greens and blues, traditional shots of cherry blossom and smooth camera work. It creates a warm yet crisp atmosphere that works wonderfully for a romantic drama like this. It's pretty fluffy and cuddly, then again this is a romance.
The soundtrack is a mix of more typical drama music and a bunch of J-Pop to lighten the mood. Excluding the people familiar with J-Pop, this is probably going to be the hardest sell for international audiences. I'm not a big fan myself, though Hiroki did seem to have cherry picked a selection of songs that work well within the film without ever becoming too sugary and poppy. It's far from excellent, but it's also not as bad as it could've been all things considered.
As for the cast, it's clear that Hiroki worked them hard. At first I feared that the actors wouldn't be able to carry the dramatic parts of the film as they all have this glossy, smooth aura over them that doesn't immediately betray acting talent. Hiroki is known to be good with actors though and when the drama opens up it works well. There's no gross over-acting or poorly acted dailogues, instead Arimura and Fukushi make for a sweet couple, carrying the romantic weight with ease.
Even though it's rarely recognized, romance is as much genre territory as is horror, sci-fi or fantasy. That means you'll be dealing with lots of clichés, predictable plot points and unsurprising endings, but that just comes with the territory. Genre films are all about execution and Hiroki adds a lot of value there. But if romance isn't your thing, then Strobe Edge has little that will convince you of its merits and you're probably better off skipping it.
In many ways, Strobe Edge is a typical manga adaptation as much as it is a typical romance. But Hiroki builds upon that to make a sweet, cute and genuine little love story. The film looks great, the acting is up to par and while the soundtrack is a bit too poppy, it never feels out of place. Hiroki did his best to make a film that transcends its built-in audience and he succeeded, but if you have an aversion towards romances it's better to just leave it be.