Kamikaze Girls (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
The following is a reprint from my coverage on the film last January. For those wondering how much of an improvement the disc is over its predecessor, please scroll down to the A/V section.
Momoko Yamasaki (Kyoko Fukada) is a seventeen year-old dreamer. That is she wishes she had been born in 18th century Rococo France; a period laced with frivolous sex and frilly garments. But her reality is a bleak one. Forced to live in the Ibaraki prefecture along with her grandmother (Kirin Kiki) on account of her ex-yakuza father’s latest scam gone horribly wrong, she finds herself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by folk who are all too happy with the simple things in life. Everyday she takes the long train journey into Tokyo in order to satisfy her very expensive tastes in Lolita fashion, which provides her escape into the fantasy life she’s created for herself - before returning home to snub her neighbours.
One day she’s paid a visit by a girl named Ichiko Shirayuri (Anna Tsuchiya), a Yanki belonging to The Ponytails: “the toughest girl-biker gang in Shimotsuma”. Ichiko had heard of Momoko’s father’s (Hiroyuki Miyasako) latest exploits in trying to peddle fake Versace products on the market stalls. After happily purchasing some left-over stock Ichiko leaves, but it’s not long before she enters Momoko’s life once more. On her next visit Ichiko informs Momoko that she wishes to honour her gang leader, Akemi (Eiko Koike), by having her jacket specially embroidered with a thank-you message by the legendary ‘Emma’. It’s not long before she drags Momoko on a mayhem-filled adventure, which sees the two allies draw closer as friends as they learn of one another’s pasts.
Author Ryu Murakami often talks about Japan as a nation suffering from a crisis of identity; a society that’s on the brink of collapse thanks to strict policies and old traditions. However, as the years move on with a heavy influx of western influences, a younger and more vocal generation has started to rise against their peers, sporting unusual looks and embracing other cultures and ideals. The quirky and colourfully dressed characters that now line the Tokyo streets may in some part be looked down upon as anti-authoritative denizens, but let it not be said that they’re not individuals who simply wish to express themselves on no uncertain terms.
I suppose then in this respect the title of Kamikaze Girls seems pretty apt from a western standpoint (it’s original title simply translating as Shimotsuma Story, named after the little rural town in Ibaraki) as our director does his utmost to highlight the importance of being true to one’s self in pop-delic style. Tetsuya Nakashima, who had started out cutting his teeth on music videos and TV commercials, unsurprisingly turns in a gaudy and spirited tale for his 2004 feature, based off the work of fashion designer Novala Takemoto. It’s a tad cynical, which is pretty much the norm these days; the director seemingly wishes to make distinctions between certain stylistic trends, whilst adamantly taking a stab at consumerism, as seen in the blissfully blasé townsfolk - and Ichiko herself - who have no qualms about spending pittance for clothes and household items at supermarket chain ‘Jusco’, much to the disgust of our heroine Momoko. “Appearances mean everything” she pompously utters to Ichiko, which throws into question just what it means exactly to be an individual in a society that's easily too conforming. Brief moments such as this, which may be construed as social criticism are few between however, so as to not overbearingly bog down the narrative with the obvious, and much could be said of the film’s intrinsic themes in trying to discover one’s own path in life. But what keeps things fresh is the positive delivery that Kamikaze Girls owes its thanks to: cynical it may be, but by no means does it want to depress us over it. Rather Nakashima goes for pacing - though adopting a somewhat clichéd narrative device through which the timeline is chronologically manipulated - as this crazed comic book comes to life with lashings of sight gags, animated inserts, eccentric characters and cabbages.
Of course its ultimate success all boils down to the central performances of Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya who enjoy a very unusual friendship indeed. This stark culture-clash, whilst not explored in any great depth, is most certainly sincere enough, and there’s simply no denying the sheer amount of chemistry shared between its stars. Fukuda makes for a fresh lead as the shallow-natured Sweet Lolita, while Tsuchiya gleefully mugs her way through as an emotionally vulnerable girl who hides under a tough exterior. Thankfully they’re more than the sum of their parts and we end up with two characters we care about on account of some welcome back-stories, both of whom have gone through the pain of loss in their pursuit of happiness. Wonderful support comes from Yoshinori Okada playing Akinori Isobe - a skewed interpretation of real-life owner of Lolita store ‘Baby, The Stars Shine Bright’ - while Sadao Abe sporting the hairdo of the year as a low-level gangster manages to steal a few moments away from the lead girls.
Third Window Films realized early on that their previous release of Kamikaze Girls one year ago was quite frankly a mess: a poorly defined, Non-anamorphic NTSC-PAL transfer which was loaded with compression artefacts, murky tones and hard-matted English subtitles. The good news it that they listened to criticism and have gone some way to rectifying these issues. The 2-disc special edition now sees the film presented anamorphically at 1.78:1, with removable subtitles, although unfortunately some problems continue to trouble it. Once again we’re looking at a standards conversion, seeing it clock in with a run time of 1:42:11, just 3 seconds shy of the original release; this leads to noticeable ghosting, while combing seems to have been largely kept at bay. It’s a wonder as to why they didn’t decide to just put it out on NTSC. On the plus side it no longer suffers from the same kind of compression foibles, leaving a fairly stable image which otherwise copes well with sudden movements, along with improving clarity and now allowing a very thin layer of grain to seep through. Also helping here is the notably higher brightness and improved contrast levels, which brings out shadow detail a little better. The difference in colour balance is marginal, however, with this new edition retaining an over-saturated palette, likely down to Tetsuya Nakashima’s particularly warm post-processing, which still leaves inconsistent skin tones, while particular colours such as pink, red and orange come awfully close to bleeding for all their garishness. There is also aliasing which mildly distracts whenever we see outdoor power cables, and a spot of edge enhancement. Below are a few screen comparisons, with last year’s release on top.
The company has also seen fit to improve upon the soundtrack. Along with a tweaked Japanese DD 2.0 track we now have a 5.1 surround option. Listening to both on a surround set-up the 2.0 offering provides far greater clarity on the dialogue front, both over the original release and the 5.1 here thanks to a little extra boosting. The 5.1 never reaches any great heights, with very little else separating the two, both delivering good ambient effects and a punchier score.
The optional English subtitles have no real issues to report, save for being slightly jaggy in appearance.
All bonus materials can be found on disc 2 and come with optional English subtitles.
The Making of Kamikaze Girls (39.08) is a fun behind-the-scenes look which covers the usual bases of production. Mixing footage from the 2003 shoot with interviews from key cast and crew members, it serves up some nice little thoughts and opinions which often come across as being very sincere, as opposed to the often back-slapping nature of these things. Director Nakashima discusses the choosing of his cast and taking the gamble in brining new-comer Anna Tsuchiya on board, while both she and Kyoko Fukada show a clear affection toward one-another, which is evidenced by plenty of candid footage. There are brief looks at lighting, hair and make-up, action choreography and sound design, along with some nice little bloopers and emotionally challenging moments.
Interview with Director Tetsuya Nakashima (3.51) doesn’t go to any great lengths, but it concisely touches upon his reasons for adapting Novala Takemoto’s novel; casting new talent; designing the overall look and discussing the themes that he feels are important to the feature.
Workprint Footage (4.50) contains a few roughly cut scenes of mainly deleted footage, with a few bloopers along the way, while Unicorn Ryuji Short Film (11.00) is the curious tale of Ryuji’s (Sadao Abe) first love as he tries to prove himself with the help of his juvenile friends. If you wondered how his hairstyle came to be then you might just be pleasantly surprised. Interviews with Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya (7.00) are standard fare, featuring predictable questions and forcing out non-too-surprising answers, while the Anna Tsuchiya Music Promo Video (3.18) doesn’t seem to bare any relation to the feature, but at least has Tsuchiya strutting about in various sexy outfits. Finally there is the original Japanese trailer and Third Window previews.