Kamikaze Girls Review
The following film review is a reprint of Kevin Gilvear’s excellent review from January 2008 which happens to mimic my own opinion of Kamikaze Girls very closely, you can also read it in Kev’s review of Third windows recent 2-Disc DVD release of Kamikaze Girls here
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.
PresentationThird Window Films makes the jump to BD distribution with this 2-disc set that contains the film on a Blu-ray Disc and the extra materials on a separate DVD disc, so without further ado let’s take a look at the Blu-ray:
Shot using a Sony CineAlta F900 HD camera, Kamikaze Girls has a very “digitally” high-exposure look with crushed whites that bloom like magnesium fire and an intensely saturated dayglo bubblegum colour scheme that is most likely the result of some heavy manipulation of the digital intermediate. As such, the general look of this Blu-ray is probably accurate enough to the director’s intentions: with garishly vivid colours right across the board – for instance the green crops and fields of Momoko’s hometown are a bold, deep green and the skies a sequence of white and blue tones ranging from pale cyan to deep blues that are so rich they almost appear alien. Likewise Momoko’s rococo-inspired garments are a giddy rainbow of electric-pink and white while skin tones vary wildly from golden-brown to lobster-red depending on the mood of each scene – yes there’s bleeding, yes black levels and shadow detail are unconvincing, and yes contrast and brightness levels can appear rather extremely high, but I can’t confidently fault this transfer for that.
Unfortunately I can’t so easily sit on the fence about other aspects of the transfer, and it’s here that I find myself in the murky waters of trying to decipher what elements of a transfer are down to the original elements and what are down to the production of the disc itself. Third Window films were provided with a 1080p 24fps HDCAM master to work on and it seems to come with its own problems, like a number of scenes exhibiting obvious signs of combing that would seem to contradict that 1080p status. My best guess would be that either Kamikaze Girls was recorded entirely in 1080i and then inconsistently de-interlaced to 1080p - resulting in some scenes remaining 1080i, or it was shot in 1080p and for whatever reason one or two scenes ended up being shot in 1080i (the CineAlta camera can record in both 1080i and 1080p easily enough). You can view a screenshot taken from one such scene exhibiting combing below:
This is certainly something Third Window wouldn’t have any control over, but what they probably did have control over and what could have perhaps been improved upon to a certain extent is the image detail and the HD compression. Kamikaze Girls isn’t a long film so an AVC encode fitting comfortably on a BD-25 disc should be more than enough to ensure no compression issues arise, and yet you can feel the strain at times with faintly noticeable blocking and obvious banding issues that may or may not be mostly down to a combination of the limitations of the HDCAM format and the harsh colour scheme.
As for detail, this window-boxed 1080p transfer looks reasonably sharp at first glance but it is severely lacking in fine detail – enough so that some viewers may consider the leap in detail over the SE DVD (which unfortunately I don’t own and so cannot compare) to be rather insignificant, but there are certainly more than a few scenes that leave standard definition long behind. The problem is most apparent in close ups and the wide shots of Momoko’s home village, where lusciously green crops tend to fade away into a green blur further into the background - which doesn’t help the encoding at all! Third Window have applied noise reduction to the image and perhaps this is to blame for the softness, but again I find myself wondering if the HDCAM format is the real culprit. The bottom line is that this is a solid if unspectacular presentation that should draw few complaints from people viewing on regular sized screens, but may underwhelm those watching on large projector displays.
Third Window haven’t provided any lossless audio tracks for this release so you’ll have to make do with a single Japanese DD5.1 track that is probably the same as the one on their 2-disc DVD release. Much like the transfer it’s a solid if unexceptional offering, with deep bass levels that are occasionally loose at times in the lower register and a reasonably pleasing level of forcefulness during the more active moments of the film’s punkish-pop sound design. Dynamics are pretty good and the sound field is relatively restrained across the front stereo speakers but reasonably active in the rear speakers. Dialogue is audible and clear throughout with only a little tearing at times, and while at times it may appear a little muffled or hollow this seems to be down to the original recording.
Optional English subtitles are included with no serious grammatical or spelling blunders.
ExtrasAs mentioned earlier, all extra materials are presented on a separate DVD disc which is identical to the 2nd disc in the 2-disc DVD release, so I will simply quote Kevin’s review of said disc here:
“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 bringing 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.”