This week’s movie, 2004’s Kamikaze Girls, made me think about how antiseptic American films about female friends are. With the exception of Thelma and Louise – and probably one or two others that I’m forgetting* – most of them 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 – and in this case I was – then you will enjoy it immensely, 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. Normally I get a little sick of those movies where every little movement by the major characters gets punctuated by a “whoosh” sound effect, but if you’re going to do that then you should do it in a movie about teenagers who love to play up the drama in their everyday lives.
However, the movie’s last half hour features a truckload of bad decisions. A pair of scenes using the same Taylor Swift-esque song** 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 I didn’t buy it: no male character in the movie has a role of any size or relevance. I honestly thought that the movie might go in a same-sex romance direction, not because guys always think that, but because the screenplay and the actors save the only real emotional intimacy for Momoko and Ichiko.*** The screenplay’s solution to the fact that we know our 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).
The biggest problem I had with the end was that I thought the Ichiko character went in the wrong direction. Tsuchiya’s performance in the first part of the movie gives you the impression that she’s full of it, and that her bravado masks a deeply screwed-up life. There’s even a scene where Momoko calls her on it, and asks if anything she had ever said was true; if you’ve read William Gibson’s novel Idoru, I started to expect a twist at the end like that book has. Instead, it turns out that Ichiko’s biker-girl life is more or less exactly as she described, which I thought made her kind of a flat character. Tsuchiya’s wild performance deserves a bit better.
Still, I think that 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 alone, I think any movie ought to be commended, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Just before I posted this, I remembered another exception: Girl, Interrupted.
**Not actually from Swift, though. The film’s soundtrack is as it ought to be: wall-to-wall J-pop.
***According to Wikipedia, the novel that the film is based on spends much more time on the girls’ boyfriends.