Haiji (Keisuke Koide) and Kakeru (Kento Hayashi) decide to enter the Tokyo-Hakone 'ekiden’, a relay marathon that is one of the biggest university athletic events of the year. Requiring a ten-man team, they recruit the remaining eight from their dorm, some of whom have never even run before.

Camaraderie and conflict among long-distance runners.

JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: It’s not exactly Chariots of Fire but this entertaining Japanese melodrama about an inter-university relay marathon race has a similar sensibility to another against-the-odds underdog sports movie, Cool Runnings.

The directorial debut by writer Sumio Omori, the film is infused with drama, gentle humour and pathos. The pace does flag at times as the narrative covers the year’s training and preparation leading to the event.

It was named best picture at the 2010 Japan Movie Critics Awards, where Omori was feted as the best new director. Based on a novel by Shion Miura, which also inspired a stage play and a manga TV series, the plot focuses on the under-rated track team at Kansei University. The team is headed by the brash Kakeru (Hayashi Kento), a star runner at high school whose athletic career was cut short by a leg injury. The 10 members of the team live in the same dormitory with Kakeru as cook, coach, motivator and father figure.

The newest recruit is freshman Haiji (Koide Keisuke), who initially ridicules the idea of competing in the Hakone Ekiden, the annual, nationally-televised marathon from Tokyo to the Hakone mountains and back. He doubts his team-mates have the stamina or the skill and he may have a point, considering they include a comic book geek nicknamed Prince (Yuichi Nakamura), a 25-year-old chain smoker known as Nico, short for 'Nicotine Devil" (Yosuke Kawamura) and an African exchange student (Dante Carver) who protests that 'it’s a stereotype that blacks run fast."

Indeed, their first practice run over 10km isn’t promising as it ends with complaints such as 'my lungs hurt," 'I can’t do it" and 'I want noodles." Tensions mount as Haiji accuses some of his colleagues of not trying hard enough, sparking a scuffle, Kakeru re-injures his leg and ends up in hospital, and at a training camp the team is ridiculed as 'hobby runners" by their rivals.

But Kakeru rallies his team-mates and they do well enough in the preliminary race to qualify for the final. The marathon itself takes ages but the finish is emotional. An under-developed sub-plot revolves around several guys vying for the affections of a pretty student named Hana.

The heart of the movie is the sometimes fractious relationship between the impulsive Haiji and the older, wiser Kakeru. The underlying, unoriginal message is summed up by Kakeru when he tells his protégé the highest compliment for a long distance runner is not that he’s fast but that he’s strong, meaning mental toughness.

The acting is uniformly good from a young cast which must be amongst the fittest ever assembled for a movie. The pain and exhaustion etched on their faces look very real.