Before kicking up a storm with ‘Memories of Matsuko’, Tetsuya Nakashima turned his sights toward modern fashion trends; the result being an unlikely buddy movie in which two girls from different worlds go on an adventure to find a legendary embroiderer. Kev checks in.
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 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 these which may be construed as social criticism, however, are far between, 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.
I had thought that Third Window Films had decided to take things up a notch after their nice presentations of Friend and PTU, but now we’re back on familiar ground. Sadly Kamikaze Girls is quite a shambles. The film is presented non-anamorphically at approximately 1.78:1 and is an NTSC-PAL conversion (combing and ghosting applies), presumably taken from an analogue source. The image is soft, with detail made worse by minor compression artefacts, aliasing and terribly low brightness which eliminates a lot of shadow detail. The colours come across OK, but they lack the impact that the director seems to be aiming for. The saturation levels on the other hand can’t be helped much, with Nakashima employing some fierce contrasts to give off a hazy, heat-wave style appearance, which also creates havoc with skin tones. A very muddled transfer, which could be improved upon. The only other version I have to go off is the HK R3 disc, which fares better for brightness but is god awful for interlacing and looks horrendous on an LCD set-up.
Meanwhile the Japanese 2.0 DD track is quite underwhelming in itself. The film was designed with DTS in mind for theatres, so right off the bat we know to expect better. The DVD requires the volume levels be turned up considerably, and there’s very little use being made of the central channels. Dialogue comes across fine enough, but there’s not much lovin’ for Yoko Kanno’s pleasant score. Tommy Heavenly’s tracks feel a bit livelier, while general ambience levels are pretty lacklustre.
English subtitles are included and while they read fine, with no grammatical errors to my eye, they are hard-matted.
Pretty much fluff material here. We have two very short interviews with the female leads, who are asked the usual unoriginal questions and give equally unoriginal answers regarding their characters and the director, while a trailer for the feature rounds things off.
Kamikaze Girls is another fine inclusion into the pantheon of Japanese buddy movies, offering an endearing look at a select youth culture and filling it with all sorts of wacky nonsense, at the end of the day leaving behind a simple message. Very refreshing to see Third Window Films take a chance on Asian comedy, but their quality in presentation at present is certainly questionable.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum