Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Kamikaze Girls
(Tetsuya Nakashima, 2009)

As regular readers will surely have noted, I don’t tend to bother writing about many new movies, largely due to the fact that I don’t tend to bother watching any. But nonetheless, I’m extremely glad that fate threw a copy of Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kamikaze Girls” into my path.

A film both fascinating and hugely entertaining, “Kamikaze Girls” has given me a rare insight into the nature of teenage sub-cultural identity in modern Japan. It has bombarded my senses with avalanches of incongruous cinematic imagery and cultural detritus the likes of which I have never before seen. It has introduced me to characters who exist in a world utterly removed from my own, but whose travails can’t help but remind me poignantly of my own formative years. It has touched my heart with its hymn to the virtues of friendship, non-conformity and self-definition, and has helped me both reflect on and strengthen my own philosophy of life.

And furthermore, it has succeeded in communicating all this exclusively via the medium of pretty Japanese girls flying through the air, riding motorbikes, turning into cartoon characters, singing awesome punk-pop songs and fighting with baseball bats, in a frantic, colour-saturated explosion of continuous excitement.

Verily, it is a GOOD FILM.

Young Momoko, played by Kyoko Fukada, is heavily in thrall to the ‘Lolita’ subculture, a phenomenon I daresay Nabokov never saw coming wherein Japanese girls model themselves upon an antiquated extreme of femininity, wearing incredibly elaborate, hand-stitched dresses along with bonnets, parasols and the like, generally making an effort to appear as sweet and dainty and beautified as they possibly can as they stomp around the streets of Tokyo.

Not that Momoko often gets the chance to stomp around the streets of Tokyo, stuck as she is in a featureless rural backwater, where her outlandish mode of dress and long journeys to stock up on threads at her favourite Tokyo boutique are treated with outright disbelief by the crude locals (haven’t you heard, they tell her, the supermarket has everything, and cheap).

As is common when imaginative kids discover fashion and culture in isolation, Momoko has managed to invest her chosen sub-culture with a weight of meaning that extends way beyond anything its instigators are likely to have intended, daydreaming about the excesses of the French Rococo period and fervently wishing she’d been born in 18th century Versailles. Taking the hedonism of France’s pre-revolutionary aristocrats as her inspiration, Momoko has in fact developed her own personal belief system, prioritising the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure above all things, and rejecting human relationships and earthly loyalties entirely – a belief that proves particularly useful when it comes to acquiring the necessary cash to fund her clothes habit.

It is through one of these scams (selling her deadbeat ex-Yakuza dad’s stash of counterfeit Versace gear online) that Momoko meets Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya). Ichiko is something called a ‘Yanki’. Like some kind of post-modern Japanese mods, the Yankis, it seems, are violent girl biker gangs who ride outlandish-looking modified motorscooters and wear an odd mixture of baggy brand-name clothing and long, militaristic ‘Kamikaze coats’ embroidered with significant messages and symbols.

It occurred to me whilst watching that obviously naming your film “Kamikaze Girls” must carry a lot more resonance for a Japanese audience than for those of us in the rest of the world, and it is presumably from these Yanki coats that the title is derived. Whether they’re modelled after coats worn by WWII Kamikaze pilots, reclaimed in the manner of Western punks and bikers taking on Nazi paraphernalia for secondary level shock value (as seen on the coat of one of the 'bad' biker gangs above), or something else entirely, I’ve no idea, but I loved the way that “Kamikaze Girls” keeps throwing in fascinating details like this, showing us these previously undreamt of bits of DIY pop culture in full flight, without ever making a detailed knowledge of them a prerequisite to enjoyment of the movie.

Despite clearly identifying herself as a ‘tough chick’ (by tried & tested means of frequently spitting, headbutting, threatening and bragging), Ichiko still goes gaga over Momoko’s stash of fake Versace, and covets her grandmother’s ‘80s Honda scooter – certainly behaviour that will have any devotee of Western mod/biker subcultures scratching their heads, but such, we assume, is the way of the Yanki, a few decades and thousands of miles removed from all that junk.

And despite her tough talk of gang loyalty and comradeship, it soon becomes clear that Ichiko is just as much of an idiosyncratic loner as Momoko, apparently also stuck in the middle of the same square, rural dead-zone, and seemingly with plenty of time on her hands, despite her gang member duties. So you probably see where this is going – in spite of their obviously antagonistic cultural identities and bafflement at the other’s lifestyle choices, the unlikely friendship ™ between Momoko and Ichiko is very much the heart of this film, an opposites-attract pairing that might have seemed pretty hackneyed were it not for Tsuchiya and Fukada’s blindingly likeable, lightning-in-a-bottle performances, as played out against the film’s myriad of other delights and distractions.

To relate the assorted scrapes that Momoko and Ichigo get into together once their awkward allegiance blossoms would obviously be surplus to the plot synopsisin’ requirements of this review, but suffice to say, there is little more director Nakashima could have done to render the proceedings any more *fun*, determined as he is to reflect Momoko’s hedonistic philosophy in the appearance of the film itself, transforming this simple(?) tale of mismatched friendship into a hyper-kinetic avalanche of visual data that would make for a hugely pleasurable experience, even if one were to blank out the storyline altogether.

Every colour in “Kamikaze Girls” is as bright as it could possibly be, every action or image is as strong and stylised and rich in detail as filmic technology allows, even as the maniac-child editing piles up information about as fast as the human mind can process, an endless whirligig of tricks and gimmicks, flashbacks, fantasy sequences and films-within-films. If there is a complaint to be made that the film’s narrative drive becomes somewhat lackadaisical at times, the constant visual stimulus renders that observation akin to complaining that somebody who keeps giving you free cakes and beer isn’t doing so in an orderly and consistent enough fashion.

By way of example, here is but a sample of the audio-visual delights that zoomed by in my DVD-Player window as I watched the movie again to get some screen-grabs:

Doubtless comparisons will be made to post-MTV music vids, video games, anime and the like, but more than anything “Kamikaze Girls” reminded me of the ADD-afflicted insanity of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Hausu” (1977 – recently reissued on DVD, fans of A-grade lunacy take note). Both films exhibit a determination to throw every visual trick in their arsenal at the audience at every possible opportunity, to the extent that normality effectively collapses into a hyperreal blitzkrieg of fun n’ games – the only difference being that the strong, real-world characters and convincing performances of Nakashima’s movie keep things nicely grounded, whereas Obayashi spirals off down the rabbit-hole never to return. And if some of the devices utilised in “Kamikaze Girls” may thus seem a little too familiar and cutesy when taken in isolation (y’know, cartoon-ish family history montages and stuff), it’s hard to object too stringently – the “heart-warming indie-comedy” alarm bells will barely have time to start ringing before the next batch of dazzling, hallucinatory antics turns up to keep us entertained.

Unsurprisingly I suppose, the Western film to which “Kamikaze Girls” perhaps bears the closest comparison is Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of “Ghost World”. But whereas the Clowes/Zwigoff story ultimately explores the way in which its characters’ self-created identities and cultural aspirations are routinely frustrated by the limitations of plebeian reality, the characters in “Kamikaze Girls” exist in a more privileged (post-internet, post-iphone) world in which the drawbacks of the outside world are scarcely even a CONSIDERATION.

Momoko and Ichako’s cultural identities rule their entire existence, with both offering direct veneration to their Lolita and Yanki gods (fashion moguls and legendary gang leaders respectively) throughout the film – an idea that is made more explicit when the film’s ritualistic bike gang showdown takes place in the shadow of a giant, beatific Buddha, both the statue and the girls’ ‘Kamikaze Coats’ reminding us of the presence of an older, pre-cultural overload Japanese history still peeking through the cracks.

When the Lolita and the Yanki first meet, there is a lot more at stake than just some goofy “jock meets nerd” encounter between different participants in the same system of social exchange. Here, their respective worlds, walled off by technology and isolation, are incompatible on a level John Hughes never imagined. Their mutual incomprehension is such that on their first encounter each seems to be making contact with an alien race – they can barely even figure out how to talk to each other, or undertake a commercial transaction, making their inevitable allegiance and Breakfast Club-like exchange of values even more of a fragile and unpredictable thing.

For all of this concentration on isolation and obsession though, “Kamikaze Girls” still manages to reach far happier conclusions than “Ghost World” did, with Nakashima’s film broadly coming out in FAVOUR of the importance of defining ones own world against the squares and grown-ups who would seek to undermine it, of the joys offered by fantasy, individualism and pre-emptive myth-making, and of…. well I forget what else, but everybody’s happy, and this totally kick-ass pop-punk song plays over the end credits, so we can all leave punching the air and feeling better about our own social clumsiness and teenage fashion mistakes.

Naturally tales of teenage outsiders fighting to defend their place in the world always go down well in this neck of the woods, be it in ‘Out Of The Blue’, ‘Billy Liar’ or ‘Spider Baby’, so thematically-speaking, “Kamikaze Girls” had me from the word go. But even taking such bias into account, I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern, teen-orientated film that was anything like as insightful, beautiful and berserkly enjoyable as this one. Heart = Warmed. Result!


The Goodkind said...


Ben said...

INDEED! I confess I had to type that into Wikipedia, but seems like this film leans heavily on those guys, right down to the surgical masks and gravity-defying quiffs! Well you learn something new everyday, etc...

JRSM said...

The frame grabs alone would have sold me on this--I love the slightly off, rich colour--but with your review read I HAVE TO SEE IT!