Kamikaze Girls
 Novala Takemoto, Akemi Wegmuller (translator)
Language: English Release: 2008
Publisher: Viz Media Pages: 219
Genre: Fiction ISBN: 1421513951

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Back Cover
Nicholas Driscoll

The popularity of the movie may have eclipsed this fact in America, but Kamikaze Girls was originally a Japanese novel first published in 2002 under the title Shimotsuma Monogatari by the eccentric writer Novala Takemoto and only later adapted into the Toho movie of the same name. Like most American readers of the novel, I approached the book as a fan of the film, curious to read the original story. What I discovered was an engaging, quirky story in many ways very similar to its cinematic spawn, but Takemoto's obsessions mar the novel considerably, with both protagonists suffering as a result.

Unlike Socrates in Love, in many ways the story of the novel is almost the same as that found in the movie, albeit with some important differences I'll tackle later on. Momoko Ryugasaki is the single daughter of a minor gangster (the Loser, as she calls him) and a lowlife mother. Hers is a troubled family; her mother divorces the Loser in order to pursue a life with her gynecologist. Momoko doesn't blame her. As far as Momoko is concerned, everyone should pursue their version of happiness, regardless of the consequences.

Momoko's happiness is centered on herself, and more specifically, in living what she calls the Rococo lifestyle, which is based off of a flamboyant, hedonistic, altogether garish period of European art history. Momoko expresses her Rococophilia through a lavishly self-centered lifestyle, conning large sums of money off her father with stories cribbed from Black Jack comic books and spending it all on Sweet Lolita fashions, mostly from the real-world Baby, the Stars Shine Bright brand. When Momoko begins selling her father's fake Versace clothing to bring in more money for herself, her first customer is the loud, stupid, foul-mouthed biker-ruffian Ichigo, who is astounded that she can buy even fake Versace clothes for a reasonable price. After that first encounter, Ichigo continually visits Momoko with an eye to cultivating a friendship that Momoko initially rejects, but through a series of adventures involving pachinko, embroidery, biker gangs, modeling, and more, Momoko comes to like Ichigo and gains her first friend.

The fast-paced story is narrated by Momoko, who occasionally breaks the fourth wall in order to speak directly to her readers—just like in the movie. It's easy to stay entertained as events fly by quickly, with Momoko constantly injecting her cynical worldview into every page with sometimes amusing anecdotes and disdainful commentary. The world that Momoko paints is at once less and more surreal than the one portrayed in the film. The book contains little of the breakneck, cartoon-like insanity of the film, with no levitating little girls, violent projectile vomiting, or television shows illustrating her life. On the other hand, people through Momoko's eyes are still as stupid and fashionably absurd as in the film, and in certain major respects, the book actually transcends the film for sheer ridiculous unrealism—which unfortunately isn't as entertaining in the book as it was in the cinematic adaptation.

Most of the unrealism of the novel centers around the character of Momoko, who, somewhat disturbingly, is an extension of Novala Takemoto himself, as he reveals in the American edition's afterword: "Momoko, the girl who tells this story, is pretty much my alter ego. So if you found yourself identifying with Momoko's spirit, it means I have been understood on the other side of the ocean, and this makes me very happy" (pg. 213). It's obvious that Takemoto is very taken with his female doppelganger, and creates a literal superbeing to espouse his views. Though Momoko is, as she admits, supremely lazy and wants to live a life of leisure and enjoyment without putting forth an ounce of effort, she is also unbelievably learned, going on at length about the Rococo period, the mechanics behind fashion manufacture, double-branding, business history, and more, all while using a high vocabulary better than all but the most accomplished students I met in college. Keep in mind she is still in high school. This, in itself, is forgivable—Takemoto wasn't exactly aiming for realism in this narrative, but he doesn't stop there. In the book (unlike in the movie), Momoko's pachinko expertise is explained—her body emits an "electromagnetic energy field" (pg. 128) that causes the pachinko machines to malfunction and give her constant jackpots, regardless of the machine she chooses. Basically, she's a mutant freak, later more-or-less confirmed when she picks up and throws a moped with her bare hands. By the time an experienced Lolita clothing store owner tells Momoko that she's the best embroiderer he's ever seen (despite the fact that she had been practicing the craft as a mostly disinterested hobby since middle school), I rejected the character entirely, eventually deciding Momoko is a grotesque flight of fancy created by a grossly narcissistic author in order to celebrate himself and his ideas.

Make no mistake, Momoko is essentially a mouthpiece for Takemoto's twisted ideals, and in the book, they are not softened as in the movie. To Momoko, her own personal happiness is all that really matters, regardless of how anyone else feels, and while she eventually accepts Ichigo as a friend, Momoko looks down on her as a sub-moronic Neanderthal for much of the book. All choices one might make in life are of equal value to her, no choice inherently worse than another—unless you're not being true to yourself, and anything like work should be left to those too stupid to live a life of enlightened luxury. Selfishness, then, is the highest goal—I'm starting to get flashbacks to Suite Dreams, which has just about the same message. Takemoto sums up the message himself in his afterword: "let's all get along while following our own paths and doing whatever the hell we want!" (pg. 215) It's a nice picture, but it disregards basic responsibility to family and society (among other things) in favor of pleasure and happiness built on relativistic values and a self-obsessed amorality. I find such ideas absolutely reprehensible, and disturbing that they are so prevalent in today's society.

Unfortunately, Takemoto's portrayal of Ichigo leaves much to be desired as well. To be honest, she is my favorite character in the Kamikaze Girls story. Perhaps it's my conservative values shining through, but Ichigo's loyalty and down-home bonhomie (she's much less violent in the book) are charming, as is her comparatively simple viewpoint on life. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, in the book, Ichigo is portrayed as incredibly stupid, her all-consuming ignorance a match for Momoko's voluminous knowledge. She is still fun, and the paradoxical kindness so characteristic of her personality comes through strongly at times, but it is undermined somewhat by Takemoto's unflattering portrayal.

Putting Momoko's character failings and Ichigo's questionable intelligence aside, it's surprising how poorly Takemoto handles their relationship, especially since it is central to the plot. The fact of the matter is, the girls' friendship is almost entirely one-sided (spoiler warning): Momoko sells Ichigo the fake Versace; Momoko gets money from pachinko and gives it to Ichigo; Momoko helps Ichigo look for the Emma store (which, by the way, actually exists in the book); Momoko embroiders Ichigo's kamikaze coat for free; Momoko consoles Ichigo after the man Ichigo adores marries another woman; and finally, poor, petite, maladroit Momoko saves Ichigo from a gang of brutish biker Yankis. The only thing that Ichigo ever does for Momoko is model her specially-embroidered clothes for Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. Granted, the movie has much the same problem for the most part, but the movie makes some wise decisions—toning down Momoko's ideological blather and contempt, and mercifully treating Ichigo's character with more respect. Ichigo's generosity is most tellingly displayed in the movie when Momoko calls on her for help sorting out whether to take a job with Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. Instantly Ichigo goes to Momoko's side, skipping a gang meeting and thereby putting herself in physical danger of gang-style payback. In the book, Ichigo becomes a part-time fashion model well before the climax, and it is her modeling more than her friendship with Momoko that incites her gang's ire. Narratively, it's a major misstep, taking the focus off of the friends' relationship and putting it onto the duller message of the importance of independent expression, everyone living how they like. We readers don't care about that. We care about what happens to the characters, not how their lives portray independent "hard-core" spirit. The climactic action wherein Momoko saves Ichigo is less satisfyingly staged as well, with Momoko chucking a moped and a series of water balloons in order to rescue her friend, instead of taking on the title of gangster legend Himiko's daughter like in the movie, thereby bringing that narrative thread around full circle and giving Momoko a much more plausible means of fooling the Yanki Ponytail gang. Takemoto simply didn't refine his story enough. (end spoilers)

Translator Akemi Wegmuller (who handled Socrates in Love as well) also made a very curious decision when translating Ichigo's dialogue, especially considering that Kamikaze Girls seems to be aimed at a young adult audience and was published under the Shojo Beat label. Basically, Ichigo constantly uses the harshest language, her favorite word starting with "f" and rhyming with "duck." Once she shows up (shortly after page 50), the narrative becomes replete with the word, which would have easily earned the movie a hard R. (To be fair, the film does include one use of that oh-so-infamous expression, spoken in English, although obviously the Japanese don't consider it as offensive as Americans do.) Wegmuller even translates the tough-guy phrase "Namennayo!" as "Don't **** with me," even though it literally means (at least according to Mark Schilling in The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture) "Don't lick me" and was used in a widespread fad in the early 1980s wherein a multitude of cute animal images and trinkets were sold with the phrase included. It's hard to imagine a phrase with the offensive power of "Don't **** with me" being used in such a popular fashion in any society. The prevalent use of obscenity is arguably Wegmuller's biggest misstep in that she seems to disregard her target audience, but it is not her only one.

Wegmuller had a lot of considerable challenges to overcome in translating this text, including a great deal of vocabulary and terms that aren't directly translatable, and she makes a valiant effort to clue in her audience, but ultimately fails in the endeavor. She includes a glossary in the back of the book to explain certain Japanese expressions and places, such as Kansai, Yanki, and Yokohama Ginbae, but it isn't comprehensive to the text by a long shot, failing to cover such terms used as sukeban, tekiya, kogal, shuppatsu/deppatsu, sarashi, or the Japanese obscenity omeko, just to name a few. For some, all these terms and more could become very confusing, so a much more comprehensive glossary would have been a wise inclusion. Nevertheless, I really was impressed by what Wegmuller accomplished here in translating the vocabulary-rich, cynically-infused text, and for the most part I enjoyed the prose.

Along with the many Japanese words, Kamikaze Girls includes many pop culture references and real-world detail, including the aforementioned Baby, the Stars Shine Bright and Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, as well as Universal Studios and the manga Hi-Teen Boogie. Most notably for Toho kaiju fans, at one point Momoko and Ichigo call each other monster-inspired names—Momoko is called "Loligon" and Ichigo is labeled "Yangilus." The joke falls a little flat, but kaiju fans should appreciate the reference if nothing else.

I realize I am biased towards the film version of this novel, so I should say again that Kamikaze Girls the novel is an entertaining read with some fairly enjoyable prose impressively translated by Akemi Wegmuller. Nevertheless, Takemoto's tale falters and nearly kills itself due to his self-serving ideological speeches and, worse, his painfully bad choices in the portrayal of the protagonists, especially the egotistical Momoko. Couple that with the kind of language one would expect to find in a gritty crime movie and a high level of Japanese expressions poorly explained, and this Shimotsuma story fails so badly that even super-mutant Momoko can't save it.