Sailor Suit and Machine Gun Review
Based upon the novel of the same name by prolific author Jiro Akagawa, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun tells the story of Hoshi Izumi - Koizumi to her friends - (Hiroko Yakushimaru) - a young schoolgirl whose father has recently passed away. Soon after the death of Hoshi Takashi she receives a letter from him, stating that he’d like his mistress Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri) to stay and befriend her. However, that’s not the end of her troubles. It just so happens that her father was the boss of the Medaka gang and that she’s the 4th Gen successor. But the gang isn’t exactly hot right now as there are only four members: Sakuma (Tsunehiko Watase), Masa (Masaaki Daimon), Aki (Toshiya Sakai) and Hiko (Shinpei Hayashiya). Also they’re in the midst of a turf war with the forty-strong Matsunoki gang who are also affiliated with the Hamaguchi gang. With Koizumi thrown in the deep end it’s up to Sakuma and company to teach her a little Yakuza etiquette, but there’s no time to waste as battles of honour grow fiercer and the arrival of Mayumi sparks a hunt for missing heroine, with a detective named Kuroki (Akira Emoto) hot on the trail.
Shinji Soumai had only made thirteen films before cancer took him in 2001 and his second feature Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is one of his most celebrated, not only for its satirical approach toward typical gangster films of the time and changes in society, but also for placing a then sixteen year old Hiroko Yakushimaru in an unusual central role, which on the basis of a single line uttered earned a massive response across Japan. She was the discovery of producer Haruki Kadokawa, who had placed her in a number of films throughout the eighties including Soumai’s debut feature The Terrible couple, Story of a Detective (also based on an Akagawa novel) W’s Tragedy and Legend of the Eight Samurai. Her popularity soared throughout the decade until she slowed down during the nineties and subsequently hit back hard with a series of popular J dramas and movies. And it’s easy to see what her appeal was back then; what it was that managed to win her so many idol awards. She’s the perfect teen model for which to reflect society upon: sassy, playful, innocent, stubborn - all the things to contrast against the wide world around her and a role that she effortlessly seemed to sink herself into. Neither is she a classically beautiful young women, which manages to aid the ordinary status of her character that Soumai eagerly seeks to capture.
Soumai, a former Nikkatsu A.D. approaches his material quite carefully; Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is one of several films of his that notably features extended one-take shots. These almost become a study on nature as the director quite literally lingers over his material, not caring so much about forwarding the plot but capturing a single moment in time - whether it be glorious or not - and savouring it like a fruit pastel (and that’s hard to do). His camera waivers, he employs unsteady hand-held tricks and even pans across tightly closed rooms when ordinarily he shouldn’t have to. While it never badly stalls it has a tendency to jump cut to from one important scene to the next: it briefly bonds characters with lengthy takes and then cruelly disbands them without hesitation, which is most disappointing if by that stage you’ve grown to like them. But that could also be Soumai’s genius; taking away Koizumi’s safety net to leave a sudden impact, as if to reiterate that this stuff happens all the time and we just have to deal with it. Certainly if he needed to prove that point then the characters of Koizumi and Sakuma are perfect grounds to do so. Soumai infuses his film with an equal sharing of teen sentiments and grown up sensibilities; this isn’t solely Koizumi’s adventure in which she must learn to grow in an adult world, but a trial for its predominant male protagonists as well, who find that maybe the life they lead isn’t so desirable after all. There’s a sense that Soumai wishes to convey how important Koizumi is to her group and vice-versa and it does indeed work very well. There’s a charming chemistry shared between Yakushimaru and her co-stars who are each brought to life empathetically and retain their own unique personalities, despite being obvious pastiches of any number of characters from any number of classic Yakuza film offerings, but especially the father figure of Sakuma is well drawn and excellently carried out by Yakuza movie veteran Tsunehiko Watase.
That in itself might prove to disappoint some looking for more in the way of heavy action and at times Soumai’s indulgence gets the better of him because we still feel that we should be seeing more than what we get. It should be noted that although the film’s title suggests more in the way of exploitation and action the truth of the matter is that this is more a war of words and about precise characterization. Soumai draws out the plight of each gang with lengthy bouts of dialogue and foreboding shots that take us to places we can already see coming. The title then would appear to refer to Koizumi’s ultimate awakening; the moment when she feels truly powerful, as if nothing at that moment could ever stop her from unleashing hell. The build up, while indeed strategically placed is well worth the time spent. Koizumi hits back in a hail of bullets toward the end of the picture and lets out an orgasmic sigh - a sign perhaps that this is now her on a road to womanhood and self discovery, or even a cry of feminism in a changing society. And when we think about it that makes perfect sense when taking into consideration the amount of times she’s been laughed at for being in charge of something belonging to a world she would ordinarily never understand. Throughout the feature Soumai utilises some deft humour, not only in amusingly capturing some rather fun Yakuza clichés to try and lighten the tone from time to time, but also in placing obvious pot shots toward male domination. Yet the film doesn’t totally rely on being a satire and it never feels like it’s trying too hard to be one. Sailor Suit and Machine Gun draws a neat line between comedy and drama; it’s a lot of fun and can be disparaging, but the concept is quite unlike anything else doing the rounds at the time.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is presented on DVD by Hong Kong distributor IVL. For those interested IVL has struck a deal with Kadokawa and currently there are a dozen or so titles to pick up already, including several starring Hiroko Yakushimaru. So time to get in on some of that idol popularity.
Unfortunately the version being presented here is the 112 minute international cut, which includes the (seemingly tame) blocking out of a sex scene that Koizumi walks in on. Shinji Soumai ended up doing a 131 minute director’s cut, which doesn’t look like it’s ever appeared on home video. The fact that there is a director’s cut somewhere out there might explain why Sailor Suit and Machine Gun feels a little jumpy in its current form.
The film is presented with an anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio, although the box states 2.35:1 anamorphic. Watching the film on this disc you can’t help but think that the framing is awfully tight in areas. It’s almost hard to believe that some shots are meant to look like they do, while some panning camera work evidently feels part of Soumai’s experimental approach. The original theatrical trailer that appears as a feature also shows a 1.85:1 frame, so that probably explains it all. Still it’s most odd and I feel that this feature would have benefited from a wider lens. With that said I’ll move on to the transfer itself.
Of the IVL Kadokawa collection titles that I’ve seen to date I’ve found a fair amount of inconstancies. I’m guessing that the company isn’t receiving the best materials in the world. The image here is soft, overly bright and contrasty; outdoor night shoots show barely any detail and blacks lack any depth, blending in to see each (see first grab with suits). Of course for a film this age and depending on its budget it’s entirely possible that it’s supposed to look like this, but I’d rather see a Japanese master to know for sure. Colour appears to be naturally saturated though and Soumai does tinker with his camera from time to time, enhancing bloom and brightness in key areas. Low-level noise creeps in and is more noticeable on darker backdrops, while there’s just a hint of dot crawl. Finally the transfer is non-progressive, showcasing combing and ghosting.
The Japanese mono soundtrack is functional. While there’s some hissing here and there and hollowness during portions of dialogue it still very much has clarity and there’s not a great deal to be done with an original track such as this. The film’s score and environmental effects are equally suitable, all in all making for an undemanding but pleasant enough listen. There are also optional English subtitles, which are well done and don’t contain any major grammatical errors.
For extras we’re given the original theatrical trailer.
The premise is just too good to pass up. The idea of a Yakuza mob made up of just four men and a young girl makes for a worthy subject and director Shinji Soumai has a ball with his material. An unusual and sometimes surreal offering from Japan that can finally be enjoyed with subtitles. Fingers crossed the DC will see the light of day in future.