In the age of Netflix and Amazon.com, it’s never been easier to find a foreign film. Even so, there are plenty of foreign films out there which even hard-core cinephiles might not know of. We shine a light on those movies with the occasional series Subtitles Welcome.
The Subject: Kamikaze Girls (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2004)
The Subtitles: Japanese
For a long time, American films about female friends have tended toward the antiseptic. With the occasional exception such as Thelma and Louise or the collaborations between Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, most of theses films are as conventional as they come in just about every way: their content, the way they’re photographed, the acting, et cetera. So where do you go for a little unconventional girl-centric filmmaking? Japan, of course.
Kamikaze Girls is a manic, candy-colored, music video of a movie, the sort of offspring you would get if you mated any of the above-mentioned films with Speed Racer. It spends the entirety of its first two acts being stubbornly irreverent and intentionally over-the-top, refusing to take itself or any of its subjects seriously. If you’re down with that sort of thing, then you will enjoy it immensely, at least for a little while.
The movie starts with Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) being hit by a car and dying. She’s a young girl obsessed with the Rococo era in France, to the point that she wears frilly dresses everywhere she goes. The film then rewinds to the beginning and explains where Momoko came from and how she became friends with Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya), a “yanki” (rebellious youth) who claims to be a member of an all-girl biker gang. There’s a labyrinthine plot involving Ichiko having some trouble within her gang and needing some embroidery done, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. All you need to know is this: if you don’t enjoy these two actors and characters playing off of each other, you’re not going to enjoy the movie. The film does offer a few laughs at the beginning about the consumer culture that Momoko hates so much, but for the most part it’s all girl power, all the time.
For the first 70 or so of the movie’s 102 minutes, that formula works great. Each of these characters is obsessed with having her own unique style, so the hyper-stylizing of the filmmaking works really well with what the script wants to do. Fukada and especially Tsuchiya have a pitch-perfect understanding of how big their performances need to be. It’s easy to get sick of those movies where every little movement by the major characters gets punctuated by a “whoosh” sound effect, but if a director is going to do that then it should happen in a movie about teenagers who love to play up the drama in their everyday lives.
However, the movie’s last half hour has a few bad decisions. A pair of scenes using the same Taylor Swift-esque song (it’s not actually Swift, but J-pop that sounds far too much like her) break with the previously brash tone and utterly kill the film’s momentum. One of those scenes is supposed to deal with a love interest for Ichiko, but that’s a poor decision, as no male character in the movie has a role of any size or relevance; the only emotional intimacy in this film is between Momoko and Ichiko (According to Wikipedia, the novel that was the source material for this movie spends much more time on the girls’ boyfriends). Finally, the screenplay’s solution to the fact that the heroine is going to die in a car crash is ham-handed and unrealistic, even once you consider that the movie takes place in a heightened, comic-book sort of world.
For a movie that begins so unconventionally, it’s disappointing that the Ichiko character went in the wrong direction. Tsuchiya’s performance in the first part of the movie gives the impression that she’s full of it, and that her bravado masks a deeply screwed-up life. Anyone who’s read William Gibson’s Japan-set novel Idoru will expect a twist at the end like that book has, but instead, it turns out that Ichiko’s biker-girl life is more or less exactly as she described. She turns out to be something of a flat character, and Tsuchiya’s wild performance deserves better.
Still, Kamikaze Girls is a worthwhile movie, especially if your only experience with Japanese cinema consists of anime, samurai movies, and the like. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie quite like it, and I mean that statement in a good way. For that accomplishment, any movie ought to be commended, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. This article is a re-edited version of a blog post he wrote in 2011.