Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kamikaze Girls (2004) - LAMB Review

And after nearly months of harping about it, and hoping that it could happen again, here is a first crack at a full-blown Kaijyu return. Now granted this wasn't at all what I had planned before certain events reared their heads, but in part respect to rural Japan , and part inspired by a fun Twitter discussion, I've decided to choose this 2004 film as my next review in my ongoing Live Action Manga Blues series. While this is a film I have seen multiple times over the years, it isn't as if I've loved it without reservation.

Yes. The Kaijyu has a strange relationship with Tetsuya Nakashima's colorful ode to EGL & Sukeban subculture. And I'm not sure if there's a complete way to actually describe what it is that I feel either way about Shimotsuma Monogatari. Originating as a light novel by Novala Takemoto in 2002, and was eventually adapted into a popular manga (featuring Yukio Kanesada), the film is a neck-breaking, eye-attacking exploration of the relationship between two unique characters. And when I say character, I mean white-hot intense caricatures, not unlike everything else in the film.

Young Momoko Ryugasaki (played with often frightening detachment by J-culture icon, Kyoko Fukada) opens the film in a dazzling prologue that includes a scooter accident, life flashing before our eyes, and some backstory to gather us into the wild story of her life until the potentially unseemly final moment. In an almost Fight Club inspired fashion, we are instantly privy to this film's cartoonish, frantic style complete with segueways and narrative rest stops as we see Momoko's early life as the daughter of a generation completely incomprehensible to her. Her mother, an aimless beauty, seeking out a man to rescue her. And her father, a lowly Yakuza errand boy. It is within this section of the film that we are quickly informed of just how this girl, came to not only move from the city, and into the cow patty-laden fields of Ibaraki, but also of her early disenfranchisement with the Japanese mainstream-enter her love of Elegant Gothic Lolita fashion, Roccoco-era sentiments, and utter detachment from others in a frilly packaged means of self-preservation. No way any old world "ideals" of love and connection to drag her down. Even as she often takes the long train to the city to spend whatever ill-gotten money she "earns" to maintain her fashion fix. (the weakness stemming from her father's counterfeit fashion scheme that eventually ran them out of town in the first place)

And it is within this mildly questionable chain of business practice, that she inevitably meets imposing, uncouth biker gal, Ichiko (played to the nines by model-singer Anna Tsuchiya) who is everything that Momoko isn't. The scooter-riding, showa-era style seifuku wearing Ichiko is passionate to say the least, which runs perfectly counter to Momoko's perfectly imposed sense of self, and seeming lack of caring. And it is within this strange, often violent (Simple, insult Ichiko, and its a kick or a headbutt) pairing that the film centers on. And it is the fact that these two are so far away from the city that borne out these obtusely diverging lifestyles that often fuels the humor. There is something about Momoko getting headbutted out in the middle of an open field that is both pathetic and hysterical. But it is when the duo set out to the city to seek out a "legendary" pattern maker that the story is set to test them both.

And this is where Nakashima & Co. seem far more interested in us getting to know these two at an almost arms-length distance, all the while drowning us in exploding charges of style. Which is welcome of course (this is also a guy who happened to really dig Scott Pilgrim if you remember), but the context of how we know these characters is often through the eyes of Momoko, who's world view may be considered skewed to say the least. And even an unreliable narrator as she can be, there needs to be some kind of counterbalance to help us better see them as humans rather than caricatures (even in Pilgrim's case, a look, a gesture went a long way to sell the real stakes) which really takes on bothersome dimensions when a potential love interest enters the fray. There's something in this section of the plot that in many ways almost kills the film completely. Especially when one of the girls is placed in a situation where growing up is at the center. If we don't feel the gravity of what is happening, and the interest is nothing more than an exaggerated cartoon, we are given little to nothing to care about. The fallout from this is an air of visually striking indifference. And worse yet, disinterested. (much like Momoko at the start, which defeats the entire purpose of an arc.) Made all the more frustrating as it seems like the two leads are really striving for more.

It also doesn't help that when the film's frenetic stylings attempt to shift gears, none of that works since the film almost wholly relies on gimmickry and the often appealing performances of Fukada/Tsuchiya. A mix that could have worked, but ultimately rings hollow. Particularly in the dull thud of a finale, which puts emphasis on name and reputation over individuality, which is disappointing.

And yet, perhaps the reason I still come back to the film occasionally is the package, rather than content. Nakashima's background was in commercials, and this is occasionally a stunning showcase of his talents if anything utilizing colors, set design, lighting, and even animation to fun effect. There is also an extensive use of real locations that is more than appreciated. To see these exteriors from the often flat lands of Ibaraki, to the pachinko parlor backlit streets of Tokyo, there is some welcome imagery here. And also of note is famed composer, Yoko Kanno's unique work in the film that encompasses several eras of J-pop culture to create a sound collage that is unlike anything she had done prior. And while all this, with such a surprisingly fun pairing, make for a fun audio-visual experience, its a shame that such a package comes short of a beating human heart.

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