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Kamikaze Girls
cast: Kyoko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya, Sadao Abe, Hiroyuki Miyasako

director: Tetsuya Nakashima

102 minutes (12) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail
[released 12 January]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Based on a novel by Novala Takemoto, Kamikaze Girls (aka: Shimotsuma Monogatari in Japanese) is a youth-oriented comedy drama about the reluctant friendship between two teenaged girls in rural Japan.

The film revolves around a clash of cultures between the girls. Momoko (Fukada) is obsessed with the values and styles of the Rococo period. Wanting nothing more from life than needlepoint, country walks, and frilly dresses (available only at great expense from a shop named Baby, The Stars Shine Bright), Momoko is a rugged individualist who thinks that 'friendship' is just a pretty word and that family exist only to be conned out of money. Ishigo, by contrast, is a 'Yanki', a tough girl from a biker gang who expresses herself through head-butts, grunts and death-threats whilst dressing in a way that blends 1920s' lesbian androgyny with 1970s' Bowie. The pair meet when Momoko decides to sell off some of her father's stock of fake designer clothing (dual-branded as 'Versach' and 'Universal Studio') and Ishigo takes it upon herself to be in Momoko's debt after Momoko sells the clothing at a reasonable price.

This relationship is very much the centre of the film, its ups and downs providing much of the film's drama. Initially, the relationship is played for laughs as Momoko's impossibly child-like femininity clashes with Ishigo's 'Yanki' coarseness. In fact, both girls make it clear that they are not friends; Ishigo couches her requests for help in terms of threats and violence while Momoko's decisions to help Ishigo are always presented as something that Momoko has to do for her own sake.

The realisation that the girls may actually be friends only really dawns when they decide to travel to Tokyo in order to find a legendary embroiderer so that Ishigo might have something to wear for a parade her gang is giving in honour of the legendary leader's retirement. This journey sees Momoko realise her talent for design and embroidery as well as her uncouth and unwanted skill at pachinko. Meanwhile, Ishigo falls in love with 'Unicorn' Ryoji (Abe), an older Yanki resplendent in embroidered track suit, white patent leather winkle pickers and the kind of magnificent quiff seldom seen outside of the Leningrad Cowboys.

The trip to Tokyo sets up one of the film's more interesting ideas. Momoko is asked by the designer of Baby, The Stars Shine Brightly to come and design for him while Ishigo has the chance to discuss the future of her gang. However, both decide to sacrifice these opportunities in order to be there for their friend. This sets up the film's climax in which Momoko risks death and injury to help Ishigo from being pummelled to death by her fellow gang members. But while this confrontation opens up obvious 'life-paths' for both of the girls as a model and a designer, they both decide to stay as they are.

Kamikaze Girls presents itself as a brash and colourful comedy aimed at teenagers but its roots are in Shomingeki, a style of realist filmmaking quite distinct from the genre and historical works that continue to dominate Japanese cinema. Notable Shomingeki filmmakers include the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, the director of films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Tokyo Twilight, and Kenjo Mizoguchi, the director of Street Of Shame (1956). The cinematic pedigree of Kamikaze Girls even extends to its Japanese title Shimotsuma Monagatari, which means 'story of Shimotsuma', a naming convention very popular with social dramas. The film's realist ideals are also reflected in its detailed examination of Japanese youth culture right down to explaining the aesthetics and historical antecedents of the Sweet Lolita style and prominently featuring one of that style's favoured designers. However, while the film ultimately rests on the subtle nuances of the relationship between the main protagonists, Nakashima also has a more subversive agenda in mind.

The film's recalcitrant edge is most obvious in the clash between its diaphanous central relationship and the crudeness of many of the sight gags and fart jokes that litter its run time. So clear is the mismatch of form and content that it slowly becomes apparent that much of Kamikaze Girls' visual flourish is intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, when the film uses an animated sequence to fill in some backstory, the movement into animation is presented by Momoko as an unavoidable and frankly tedious convention, an attempt at papering over inelegant storytelling by crow-barring in some demographic-pandering anime imagery. For evidence of this type of thing in action look no further than Wook-chan Park's lifeless but similarly whimsical comedy I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay.

Not content with skewering the visual conventions of youth-oriented media, Nakashima then sets about attacking many of the formulaic plotlines favoured by people who write for kids. For example, the film begins by suggesting that its protagonists are more intelligent and emotionally together than the adults that inhabit their world - a fairly standard trope in youth storytelling. As a result, Momoko's father is presented as a farting simpleton while her mother is so adulterous that she got off with the obstetrician while giving birth. However, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that most of Momoko and Ishigo's identities are actually built upon self-delusion. Indeed, Ishigo stresses her individuality and strength while in reality she is clearly incredibly fragile and easily influenced. Similarly, Momoko dresses in a style that emphasises child-like femininity whilst voicing views almost psychopathic in their brutal lack of empathy and yet, when pressed, Momoko turns out to be both physically strong and a caring individual. The suggestion seems to be that while 'believing in yourself' is important to a teenager's sense of self-esteem, most of the beliefs that teenagers have about themselves are likely to be based upon ignorance and the warm embrace of self-deluding bullshit. Having subtly suggested that its main protagonists are not nearly as clever as they seem to think they are, the film then moves on to that other staple of youth storytelling; the recognition of the protagonist's awesomeness in the form of a dream boyfriend, a dream job or some other glittering reward.

The film ends with Ishigo and Momoko being offered dream jobs as models and designers but they both turn these down in favour of extending their adolescent existence as a bike-riding thug and a work-shy glamour-puss. Effectively leaving both characters where they started; largely friendless, utterly deluded and living in the middle of nowhere. Much like their parents, presumably.

While all of this may make Kamikaze Girls sound like a rather bitter film, the truth could not be more different. Unlike many deconstructive films such as Wes Craven's Scream (1996), the tone of Kamikaze Girls never dips into parody or sneering condescension. Instead, Nakashima attempts to play the film entirely straight creating a tone that is warm and whimsical with characters that you cannot help but sympathise with because of their incredibly human failings. However, while the film is undeniably enjoyable, its postmodern nature does raise two notable problems.

The film's tendency to introduce genre clichés purely so that it can knock them down makes for a strangely arch viewing experience. Nakashima's fondness for sending the plot chasing after red herrings can be charitably described as 'distracting' but in truth it actively serves to undermine the real substance in the film's central relationship and its observations of life as a Japanese teenager. This tilting at windmills also raises the question as to whether film is really the best format for deconstruction. As with Craven's Scream series, Kamikaze Girls' attacks on genre conventions only serves to whet our appetite for a film that avoids these clichés and moves the genre forward through strength of original writing instead of postmodern one-upmanship.

Kamikaze Girls' style and playfulness make it clear that Nakashima is competent director with a decent career ahead of him. However, for all the warmth and humour generated by the film's whimsy, I cannot help but wonder what the director might be capable of were he to take on a less ironic project. The strong current of social realism running throughout the film and the sterling performances Nakashima coaxes out of a pair of models-turned-actresses suggests that he might very well have a genuinely great film in his future.
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