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Maruyama, the Middle Schooler (2013)

Chûgakusei Maruyama (original title)
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Cast

Credited cast:
Tsuyoshi Kusanagi ...
Tasuo
Takuma Hiraoka ...
Katsuya Maruyama
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Kenji Endo
Fumina Hara
Ryô Iwamatsu
Junko Kanô
Yuiko Kariya
Sarutoki Minagawa
Hiroki Miyake
Nanami Nabemoto
Toru Nakamura
Maho Nonami
Maki Sakai
Miwako Shishido
Yûsuke Shôji
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18 May 2013 (Japan)  »

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Maruyama, the Middle Schooler  »

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Wonderfully heartfelt family movie (despite the awkward premise)
10 October 2013 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

The titular Katsuya Maruyama (Takuma Hiraoka) is a typical 14-year-old boy who thinks about, and attempts to do, what most teens (and older males, certainly) try to do at least once in their lives, if not every day. It takes some dexterity and a limber body. That's not all the movie is about, of course. It's a multi-layered narrative, essentially a sincere coming of age film, with a lot more going on than this youngster's home project. Still, there's no way to avoid discussing its central idea, so I've been conflicted about how to describe it without being vulgar. However, if the Japanese people don't see anything unusual about it, it would be hypocritical of me as an American to dance around the topic and try to come up with euphemisms and polite ways of discussing what he does. But hopefully you get the picture. And the camera does not shy away from showing his clumsy attempts to accomplish this feat, just in case you don't.

And this wonderfully sweet movie has oh, so much more going on. Besides Maruyama's intense passion for wrestling class, the four main story lines include the mother who's obsessed with a Korean soap star and spends her afternoons fantasizing in front of the television, the enigmatic grandfather with dementia who wanders off aimlessly, and the mysterious neighbor who's either a secret government spy or a pedophile – the high-rise apartment complex residents love to gossip – who takes a special interest in the youngster. Then there are bikers, bullies, dead bodies, girlfriends, boyfriends, and superheroes. Oh, and there's dad's obsession with fresh fruit. Once you get past the creep factor, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is alternately a joyous and painful look at the world from inside the mind of an adolescent. But his on screen, occasionally graphic flexibility exercises are not coming from a place of prurience. This is a story about innocence more than vulnerability, desire more than obscenity, and curiosity more than shame.

Like many Japanese filmmakers, Kankurô Kudô is a multitasking man of many talents on both the big and small screens. He's primarily an actor and writer with over 200 television shows and features to his credit. "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" (Japanese title "Chûgakusei Maruyama") is his third feature directorial effort.

The movie's authenticity rests on the diminutive shoulders of 14-year-old Takuma Hiraoka (now 15). He's a relative newcomer with just a few projects to his credit. This is his first time on the big screen and there's no doubt he's got a long, successful career ahead of him. The ensemble cast features standout performances from Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as the puzzling neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi, Toru Nakamura as fruit-loving dad Katsuyuki, Maki Sakai as soap-obsessed mom Mizuki, Yang Ik-June as Korean TV idol Park Hyeon-Hun, Kenji Endo as the senile grandfather with revelatory hidden talents, and Hiroki Miyake as the gruff but inspiring wrestling coach Umeda.

"Maruyama's" Fuji Television-backed budget allows for noticeably high production values, highlighted by outstanding visual effects, along with creatively eclectic cinematography from Kazunari Tanaka. His signature style produces an image oversaturated with bright, candy store colors, a palette typical of many Japanese motion pictures, especially kid-oriented titles. The teen's fantasy sequences are distinguished by soft focus and a delicate score to match. There's a perfectly balanced ebb and flow to the narrative, from long, poignant melodramatic scenes (e.g., heartfelt discussions between odd neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi and Maruyama) to rapid-fire editing in the film's many exciting action sequences which dominate the third act.

The fact that a story about a boy who has autofellatio at the top of his wish list was funded by and intended to be shown on Fuji Television to the country's 127 million people speaks volumes about cultural differences. Maruyama thinks nothing of dropping his pants when the mood suits him and working on his exercises, even in public in full view of passersby and classmates. It's uncomfortable, yet hilarious and utterly endearing. Conservative parents' groups here in the US would likely call it kiddie porn, which would be a darn shame. Audiences will love it, although I imagine it might be awkward for a boy to sit and watch this movie with his mother.

This is a wonderful family film, especially for young people. Many might look at the synopsis and wonder how in heck this could be considered a kids flick. Yes, it's about a middle schooler, obviously. But the subject matter is easy to misconstrue. "A movie about a boy trying to pleasure himself orally?" (Not the words one might use but I'm being polite.) "No thanks." Unfortunately, those who can't stomach that idea will miss out on of the best family films I've seen recently. Despite its provocative themes, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is hilariously entertaining and a richly rewarding way to spend two hours. If you can find it...take the kids, find some seats, then split up and move to the back row. They'll be glad you did.


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