If sports film are an entire genre of their own, then weird sports films must be a leading sub category. With TORI GIRL (トリガール！), an increasingly esoteric run that has taken us from bobsledding to dodgeball is joined by human-powered flight. Based on the novel by Kou Nakamura, it’s even more fun than repeatedly saying ornithopter out loud.
After failing to get into the college of her choice, the laid-back Yukina (Tao Tsuchiya) has cruised into a second-tier technical university. Frustrated by her lot in life, and surrounded by geeks in glasses and checkered shirts, her crush on senior student Kei (Mahiro Takasugi) leads her to join the Team Birdman Trial. Years of cycling have made her an ideal fit for the team, but a rivalry with ‘Mad Dog’ Sakaba (Shotaro Mamiya) pushes her further than she expected.
On the one hand, director Tsutomu Hanabusa’s film follows all the expected touch-points of a sports film, complete with training montages and an overall sense of inevitable triumph. On the other, he also keeps us guessing from moment to moment with batty non sequiturs and so many in-jokes and references, you’ll need an annotated edition to catch them all. Bonus points are given for those back-to-back gags on Crows Zero and the Haruhi Suzumiya light novels.
Much of this is channeled through the chaotically charming Tao Tsuchiya, who applies a kind of anime logic to her performance. Her rubber-band expressions light up every moment she’s on screen, and she’s not alone either. The enigmatic Nadal appears and disappears into frame like an apparition, becoming the source of an ongoing gag. Shotaro Mamiya’s “bad boy” (who “can’t swim for some reason”) is a faint parody of every manga you’ve ever seen. Speaking of which, there’s a legion of geeks that Yukina (and the film) takes loads of pleasure in affectionately mocking.
The competitive climax is where you would expect the film to ultimately lead, although TORI GIRL saves many of its best surprises until last, not least of which is Weather Woman‘s Jiro Todoroki as a monk who looks remarkably like Jiro Todoroki. The romantic subplot is pleasing realistic and doesn’t necessarily go where you are expecting, with Izumi Takahashi’s irreverent script keeping the unexpected laughs coming until the very end.