Girls Becoming Song

Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda

published in Film Comment Vol.43 No.4, New York 2007

Only in Japan could key members of 60s instrumental guitar combo The Ventures judge annual Ventures sound-alike competitions. There they must judge tens of bands all competing to ‘be the Ventures’. Only in America would such a situation be deemed ridiculous – maybe ripe enough for a smart-arse parody film mocking bad taste in music.

Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005) could not be made in America. On the surface a simple story of 4 Japanese high school girls who form a band to perform a clutch of cover-versions at their annual school arts festival, the film is a distilled Japanese encoding of how one can ‘become song’ – just like all those bands who wish to ‘become’ The Ventures. Linda Linda Linda accordingly explores the emotional relationship between the fours girls as they vacate their egos in order to fuse as a unit. In this sense, their song is a mystical meta-text: originally documented by late 80s power-pop-punk Japanese group The Blue Hearts, it now survives as a manual for others to embrace the energy it initially contained.

The cover version phenomenon in Japan – and its twin effect, karaoke – are more closely aligned with reincarnation than they are with simply getting drunk, making a fool of oneself and having a good time. The narrative progression of Linda Linda Linda follows how each individual in the band breaks her ego down in order to build herself into the collective ‘ego machine’ of the band and its public performance. Brooding Kei (guitar), serious Nozomi (bass), soft Kyoko (drums) and quirky Son (vocals, and the sole Korean in the school) seek to control their instruments as a means of empowering themselves to generate the holistic energy of the Blue Hearts’ song.

Linda Linda Linda delicately charts the band’s progress across a mix of volatile and existential encounters. Narratively, we register the nuances of Japanese teenagers’ social schisms prickly rubbing against their own ingrained ways of ‘politely’ refusing to say what they mean. Aurally, we audit how the performance, mix and sound design of the titular song gradually shapes their composite identity. With keen audiovisual sensitivity, an early scene details a series of wide shots of the empty high school, over which we hear the girls rehearsing. The song’s aural character is subsumed into the natural acoustics of the school’s architectural spread, gently expressing how song grows from the organic sonorum of its social production.

The score to Linda Linda Linda acknowledges the Blue Hearts’ song-text as a locus in the film. Rather than actively ‘score’ scenes, James Iha’s minimal tracks unfold as unshaped ‘pre-melodic’ tone sketches, recalling the open-ended guitar/bass strumming of seminal teen-angst bands like The Cure and New Order. Such post-punk melodic ensembles from the UK’s early 80s harmonically forged a mellowed sound that mixed a floating naivety with a grounded clarity, devoid of 70s rock heroics and prior to 90s/00s neo-folk idioms. Tellingly, those 80s UK bands were sonically epicentral to John Hughes’ concurrent teen movies, as well as later re-evaluations of that era in films like Greg Araki’s sublime Mysterious Skin (2002, score by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie). Linda Linda Linda is refreshingly devoid of a camp framing of its amateur love of music, song and life, thus impregnating the film with a truly youthful fragrance which floats across the score’s shimmering backdrops.

Linda Linda Linda is a naturalistic document defined through its slow momentum, withdrawn performances and understated cinematography. Yet it is brimful of a quietly alluring pastoral beauty in which Japanese cinema excels. Over a shot of clouds crawling past a full-bodied tree, we hear the four clicks of drum sticks signalling the start of yet another rehearsal of the titular song. Like temperature, like air, like a tree, the girls’ fusion of themselves is a matter of atmosphere. Linda Linda Linda – simultaneously a song and a film – perfectly captures how the girls ‘become song’.

Text © Philip Brophy 2007. Images © Viz Pictures