Kamikaze Girls (2004)
Nicholas Driscoll
November 10, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

As I've started preparing to write a review of the novel Kamikaze Girls (titled Shimotsuma Monogatari, or Shimotsuma Story, in Japanese), I decided it might behoove me to revisit the movie version as a means to further reflect on the story and get a stronger feel for how to compare the two media texts. Upon rewatching the filmic adaptation, I felt that I might as well write up a review of the movie and thus bring further attention to a playful, wonderful film that, against all odds, is actually superior to Novala Takemoto's light novel from which it was adapted.

The story is nothing particularly special, taking a staid concept (two wildly different individuals meeting and becoming friends despite all difficulties) and injecting it with bombastic, flashy style and memorable, instantly lovable characters. Our narrator, Momoko Ryugasaki (Kyoko Fukada, Ring 2), is the teenage child of a small-time Yakuza lowlife and a prostitute. She rejects her sordid past and looks upon her father with disdain, living a life of emotional detachment and self-absorption as she embraces what she calls the "Rococo lifestyle," based loosely on a 1700s European cultural/artistic period in which hedonism and overwrought, gaudy, sexualized art was championed. Momoko is proud of her chosen life, and expresses herself to the world via Sweet Lolita garish fashion, which she insists on wearing at all possible times (outside of school). Lolita clothes, however, are extremely expensive, and in order to fund her collection, she takes to selling her father's illegal fake Versace clothing (in the movie, it's called Versach). It is through this business that she comes to meet Ichigo Shirayuri (Anna Tsuchiya, Memories of Matsuko), a loud, brazen Yanki (or street tough) who rides a noisy tricked-out moped and wears loud, ludicrous blue-collar fashions. Ichigo takes a shine to Momoko, and thereby continually harasses the Lolita into hanging out, eventually chipping through the Lolita's cynical, hermit-like exterior so that both girls learn to see beyond stereotypes and embrace the value of friendship.

A story like this treads a fine line. The themes are extremely familiar to movie audiences around the world, and the lessons learned could quickly become tiresome or preachy if handled poorly. Kamikaze Girls avoids these pitfalls by presenting the story via vivid, kinetic imagery and over-the-top characters. Verisimilitude is jettisoned in favor of flash and style. Little girls fly into the sky, random strangers grin like maniacs and pose to show off their middle-class fashions, flatulence is rendered as curling green smoke, brand names are bleeped out of the dialogue, a man's hair is styled like a huge floppy diving board off the front of his forehead—and so the list goes on. It's surreal, it's hysterical, and it's all done with imaginative camera angles and a taste for fun that's so well-done and pitch-perfect it's hard not to love. When I first saw the movie, I left feeling jazzed, injected with a fuzzy feeling of adrenaline. It's that much fun.

Even more important are the characters, which, for the most part, are even better. The central conceit is this: Momoko and Ichigo are essentially mirror images. Momoko's name, it is revealed in the novel, comes from Hi-Teen Boogie, a real manga apparently popular among Yankis. She grew up amongst gangsters, but preferred a life of artificial sweetness and light, even as her soul rotted and she looked down upon everyone around her. Ichigo, on the other hand, grew up with a sweet, supportive family. Her name means "strawberry," and her last name is a kind of flower. But because of bullying at school, eventually she embraced a violent biker gang lifestyle—except that her heart is loyal, soft, and very warm next to Momoko's coldness. For all their contrasting personality traits, they complement each other perfectly. With some great dialogue and even better acting, these two characters become the heart and soul of the movie, and, for the most part, it's not hard to love them.

Although… I'll admit that at first I didn't like Momoko. After repeated viewings, Kyoko Fukada's performance has grown on me enormously, to the point that, for me, she eclipses just about everybody else in the film, including the theatrical character work of Anna Tsuchiya. Fukada absolutely nails Momoko. She's a natural, capturing Momoko's dreamy acidity, her cheesy delicacy, her faux sweetness in such a way that it's hard for me to picture her in a different role. Her slightly child-like cheeks fit the Lolita style perfectly—to me, in this film, she has become Momoko. Anna Tsuchiya fairs nearly as well as Ichigo, and her performance is easily the more amusing of the two. Ichigo is a strutting, scowling, growling, harrumphing human cartoon—Tsuchiya gets a vocal workout in producing Ichigo's thunderous proclamations. Her cries of "maji korosu" ("I'll kill you!") had me laughing aloud, and her facial flexing is a source of high amusement. Still, though, Ichigo's theatrics are somewhat one-note through much of the film (her brief flashback sequence as a reserved schoolgirl notwithstanding), and sometimes, quite simply, Tsuchiya just seemed to be trying too hard, until the friendship progresses and the warmth of the character really shines through. When she breaks down to cry after her shallow infatuation with a bizarre pachinko mastermind falls through, in my opinion Tsuchiya doesn't quite pull it off. The story doesn't quite warrant the level of emotion displayed here, which isn't her fault, but her acting definitely is—it seems she is trying hard to cover up her face with her hands so that we can't see how fake her crying is. It's a nice try, but it's a stumble, albeit a minor one.

For the most part the supporting characters are a lot of fun, too. I've become a minor fan of Kirin Kiki, who plays as Momoko's grandmother with an eye patch. She provides a lively diversion, a bizarre woman with issues, but lovable to the core. Sadao Abe turns in a particularly wacky performance as Ichigo's crush, and once you get his intense wide-mouthed mug stuck in your mind, it's hard to dislodge him again, for better or for worse. Really, I can't think of a stinker amongst the supporting crowd, from Momoko's parents, to the Lolita fashions shop owner, to the hick cabbage seller, every one of them contributes to the surreal, playful mood in a positive, loony way without stealing the show from the leads.

That said, there are some weaknesses to the storytelling, even considering the fluffy material. As mentioned before, Ichigo's infatuation with the Pachinko master Ryuji the Unicorn is overplayed, and equally perplexing is a later sequence in which she bursts over with excitement at the sight of movie critic Haruo Mizuno, even though Ichigo never shows any interest in movies or celebrities throughout the rest of the film. No motivation is given for her excitement, and the scene is not included in the book, so its addition to the movie comes off as pandering to the critic community. The vehicular collision is original to the movie, and has little narrative impact except as a framing scene for the events of the film—it literally has no effect on Momoko's (or Ichigo's) life. One could also argue that, as is the case with many Japanese movies, Kamikaze Girls makes no attempt at subtlety in its message—in fact, perhaps for the benefit of inattentive viewers, the main message of the film is encapsulated in a phone conversation near the climax of the film. Nevertheless, these seem like inconsequential details in such an enjoyable, eccentric comedy which has built itself on eclecticism and lively imagery.

Music follows the theme of colorful collage and accents the visual imagery well. To go with the Rococo, pseudo-artistic bent of Momoko, there are instrumental, classically-themed pieces, including some genuine, instantly recognizable songs which I should know the name of, but don't off the top of my head. Several pop tunes give the movie a modern flair, including work by star Anna Tsuchiya. Ichigo gets her own theme song via a single by tragic music legend Yutaka Ozaki, which appeals to and highlights the emotionally intense life she leads. Popular anime music composer Yoko Kanno, who was responsible for the wonderful jazzy soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop, here produces some fun and varied tunes, including a grinding guitar theme for Ichigo, and a somewhat bizarre-sounding piece for when Momoko is thinking that grated on me somewhat. Nevertheless, overall, the music work is solid and enjoyable.

Those concerned with the sometimes unpredictable content issues of watching foreign films have relatively little to worry about in Kamikaze Girls, although there are some instances of possible unpleasantness for especially sensitive viewers, including a ludicrously hilarious sequence in which harsh English obscenities and racial slurs are bleated out in nonsensical fashion. There is sex in this movie, albeit only in a nudity-free fantasy sequence, as well as some bizarre imagery of birth and a bloody fight, but mostly this film is relatively innocuous.

I said before that Kamikaze Girls the movie accomplishes the rare feat of bettering the text from which it was derived, at least as judged from the translation I read, which was more than serviceable. I stand by that evaluation. The movie includes great performances, funny gags, excellent pacing, an electric sense of energy, and fleshed-out characters which the movie respects and who we care about as an audience. The book, on the other hand, does not respect the characters as much, especially Ichigo, and functions as something of a celebration of the Rococo lifestyle with excesses in prose that are less forgivable than the eccentricities found in the film. Simply put, Kamikaze Girls the movie gets light, fun entertainment right, which is a surprisingly rare phenomenon.