2005Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Cast: Kyoko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya, Hiroyuki Miyasako
ess a film than a sustained mad sugar rush made visually manifest, the unapologetically ridiculous Kamikaze Girls bursts off the screen in an ebullient candy-colored surfeit of cartoonish cute. Its delirious opening twenty minutes is the most giddy fun I've had watching a film in months, if not years—and the big silly grin I had plastered on my face during the entirety of its run-time is now quite in danger of permanently freezing in place. As a coherent narrative, it is flimsy and facile, the barest wisp of a story of budding adolescent friendship we've seen done better a hundred times before. But as a filmic instantiation of unrestrained whimsy and pure childlike joy, it is the perfect confection. It'll be all I can do to bring even a modicum of critical reserve to this review; sometimes a film is processed totally by the heart, making any sort of rigorous analysis feel like a betrayal. So, gentle reader, try to meet me halfway on this. And lest there's any confusion from here on out, let me make this abundantly clear: I love this movie.
Kamikaze Girls (an awfully rendered English title—better would be a simple translation of the original Japanese title, Shimotsuma Story) wastes little time announcing its lunacy: a brief, goofy anime sequence, a screech of motorbike tires, and we're off flying pell-mell with our heroine Momoko (AV Idol and J-Pop star Kyoko Fukada) down the streets of back-water burg Shimotsuma and through her overheated imagination, an agreeably daft world of fanciful adolescent fabulism, languorous Rococo reveries, and particularly acute fashion fetishes. Racing off to save her friend Ichigo from bloody doom at the hands of the local all-girl biker gang, she crashes headlong into a farm truck, and while flying in slow-motion through the air in a rain of cabbages and pachinko balls, she recounts to us her peculiar history in a chaotic jumble of self-conscious, fourth wall-breaking narrative asides, multi-genre/-media detours and mash-ups, and vivid fantasias of a life of aristocratic leisure in 18th Century France.
Partial to the elaborate, self-indulgent ostentation of the Rococo style, Momoko embodies her guiding aesthetic in her incongruously anachronistic wardrobe, an endless parade of frilly pastel-hued Victorian dresses with matching parasols. Willfully eschewing what she sees as the benighted cultural wasteland of 21st century suburban Japan, she retreats into an isolated fantasy world, finding solace and salvation in a worldview just as vulgar as the one she alleges to be protesting. Corseted in selfishness and a haughty contempt that belies her cloyingly cute appearance, loneliness is Momoko's only companion.
Enter Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya–yes, another model and J-Pop star), a rough and tumble biker girl, who answers an ad Momoko has placed to sell some of her father's knock-off Versace suits. Sporting a motley get-up somewhere between yakuza and new wave poseur, Ichigo is, in every facet of her comportment, anathema to the frivolously prim Momoko. And so, of course, as in almost every adolescent coming-of-age tale involving mismatched misfits, the two begin an unlikely friendship that at first seems born of their status as mutual fashion victims, each finding grudging respect in the other's self-consciously arch wardrobe. As a comment on Japanese youth culture and fashion fads (in particular here, the Gothic Lolita and Yanki styles), Kamikaze Girls revels in the virtues and flaws of the way teenagers everywhere simultaneously empower and alienate themselves through their willfully distinctive fashion/lifestyle choices.
Though initially standoffish and openly hostile to Ichigo's advances, not wanting to risk the vital parts of herself she hides beneath her ridiculous get-ups, Momoko eventually finds (of course) what's missing in herself in her new friend—and (of course) vice-versa. What little plot the film has—a quest through Tokyo in search of a legendary embroiderer and a showdown with a phalanx of murderous biker chicks—is short on actual drama; given the film's riotous template, any narrative histrionics might have made it all but unwatchable. While the film never seems to reveal the true mechanics of the relationship, Momoko and Ichigo’s friendship always feels like the most natural thing in the world, mostly because of the winning and immensely likable actresses, both of whom bring a tremendous amount of dignity to these seemingly loopy, cartoonish characters.
Credit also director Tetsuya Nakashima, whose indulgent stylistic flourishes and frenetic pacing keeps things bright, breezy, and fun throughout. Glomming with abandon from countless other films, Kamikaze Girls plays like an unholy hundred-car pile-up involving (among others) Amelie, The Powerpuff Girls, Kill Bill (minus the buckets of blood), the entirety of Takashi Miike's oeuvre (well, minus the blood, and the filth and depravity), and (God help me) Spice World. As batshit crazy as it all plays on the surface, in the burgeoning relationship between Momoko and Ichigo the film reveals a quiet tenderness and emotional depth that belies its hyperbolically artificial and kitschy veneer. In this regard, the film Kamikaze Girls most resembles is Ghost World, charting the slow, wordless drift of kindred souls, except here towards, rather than away from, one another. Both films center on a journey of self-discovery and maturation; of finding something genuine—love, friendship, identity—beyond an overly artificial, self-produced world. I'm not sure where Momoko and Ichigo are headed off to on their motorbikes at the end of Kamikaze Girls. I just hope that it's someplace as colorful, outlandish, and relentlessly fun as the place they are leaving.
By: Jake Meaney
Published on: 2006-04-10