Teen dramas are a dime a dozen, but you can trust the Japanese to whip up a storyline that's unique and niched for a select audience, and allowing a fan base to grow from there. I cannot say I belong to the demographic or niche community for Runway Beat since it touches upon the aspect of teen fashion, but in true teen drama sensibilities has enough packed in its narrative to sustain interest in the characters' objective to succeed in their goal.
The film begins with May (Nanami Sakuraba) looking back post-graduation at the time when she and her friends were high schoolers, as she narrates through how their lives were changed with the introduction of a new student Biito "Beat" Mizorogi to their class. And the narrative inadvertently shifted to Beat as the central character after the false start; after all his name did find its way to the title, and the young scion of a fashion designer seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps if only to carve a name for himself now at a tender age. May as she turned out was quite the bland character, a pretty lass no less, but somehow the story, based upon a mobile phone novel by Maha Harada, seemed to lack focus in providing her with a stronger character as what I would have thought was befitting for a female lead.
Instead, that fell onto the shoulders of Miki (Mirei Kiritani), the teen fashion model who belongs to the same class as our protagonists, with diva attitude to boot in a class where she's worshipped by plenty of admirers, including the obligatory class ruffian Gouda (Masaki Kaji). In deciding what to do for the school's annual festival, it was so decided that the class put up a fashion runway show since they have a real life model in their ranks, but are unable to convince her to do so given their poorly designed clothes. In comes new kid on the block Beat to save the day, and launch the class' proposal, which was made to seem a lot more important given the impetus of the school to close at the end of the academic year. Rounding up the class' main core group of five are May's best friend Anna (Imalu) who moonlights in a club as a DJ, and the geek of the class Satoru (Kei Tanaka) whom Beat provides a transformation from zero to an alpha oozing confidence.
Such is because clothes maketh a man, and in Beat's designs they are to bring out the inner self confidence of the wearer. I am no fashionista, and to my naked eye Beat's designs seemed to center around tartans, and skirts, even for men, no doubt influenced heavily by the Scots. He becomes a sensation in the design world, at times making you wonder how his dad Hayato (Seiichi Tanabe) might have felt the heat, knowing that his estranged son has what it takes to probably beat (pardon the pun) him in his own game when the time is right to exact some revenge for his walking out of the family years ago.
Director Kentaro Otani may seem like an old hand at directing youth films set against a niched backdrop, such as his Nana films which explored the relationship of two namesakes in the world of rock. There aren't no real surprises being thrown up as the story sort of moves in auto-pilot, with little sub plots thrown in that came out of the formula book, such as the introduction of a minor character who has to battle a life threatening illness, to inject some melodrama into the film to balance the constantly high, confidence inducing Beat, and the philosophy he preaches through his hard work. Then there's always room for that puppy love romance to creep in, although in this case the subject got relegated to the back seat as everyone busied themselves with an objective of more urgency and importance. And with a classroom full of students, not everyone managed to get their field day, with background characters firmly being caricatures whom we don't get to see much of, except perhaps their five seconds of fame during the finale.
As with most Japanese films involving an ensemble cast with shared goals, a good chunk of the final act always get dedicated to showcase just that. Somehow the inherent setback for a film like this, is the nature of the goal. For sports films, there's the nail-biting race to the finish, or with a musical performance, there's the huge musical number we'd come to expect as a crescendo. For a fashion film, it boiled down to the requisite runway show, but in line with none of the characters (or cast) being professional models, it's a little bit of an anti-climax, although you have to admit the brilliance behind the idea because this after all is a film about confidence building and there's nothing more nerve wrecking to conquer than to step out there and being judged by peers, or to play to one's strengths in contribution toward a common objective. The rawness of being non professional models helped, although the clothes stuck to the safe and secure rather than the flamboyant and outrageous.
Those interested in Japanese teen fashion will find Runway Beat screaming at you for the many clothes and designs that one may want to adopt. Runway Beat brings to mind yet another recent Japanese film known as Paradise Kiss, but the story here is firmly set amongst a younger crowd, with only one designer providing some level of consistency versus Kiss which had almost everyone a flamboyant creator in his or her own right. Still, it's Japanese culture and influence we're talking about, and there's surely no shortage of fans and those willing to be inspired through fashion.