Kamikaze Girls (2004)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (4/5)
June 4th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Tetsuya Nakashima's Kamikaze Girls is probably one of the more enjoyable, unique and, most importantly, humorous films to come out of Japan in ages. Gaining a great critical reaction during its limited theatrical release in the states, the movie is now also quickly developing a cult following behind it, and for good reason. After all, Kamikaze Girls doesn't just excel with its great sense of humor, but nearly all aspects of the production succeed with wonderful results. The story, for example, works as a great platform to keep the jokes coming, although its true strength comes in the form of its extraordinary level of character development present along with the phenomenal chemistry found in the two lead actresses, as the great production values and pacing of the movie lead to one of the more memorable films in modern Japanese cinema.

In terms of plot, the movie follows Momoko Ryugasaki, a high school girl with a fascination behind the 1700's Rococo period and the frilly style of dress associated with the era, and her efforts to live an isolationist lifestyle. Unfortunately, her shopping habits have left her in need of income, as her washed-up father is stuck without a real job. This leads Momoko to place an ad in an effort to sell some of the bootleg Versace clothes her father used to sell. The advertisement attracts the attention of Ichigo Shirayuri, a biker “Yanki”, who arrives at the Ryugasaki household. Feeling indebted to Momoko for selling her a Versace jacket for only 20,000, despite Momoko insistently telling her that it's fake, Ichigo continually returns to the household as an unlikely friendship begins to broad between the two.

As far as the story goes, it's more or less an Odd Couple “buddy flick”, yet Nakashima's sense of style and humor makes what could have been a mundane storyline into something exceptional. The movie starts out in a non-linear fashion, showing an event near the end of the film where Momoko, on a bike, gets into a crash with an oncoming truck. The film then works backwards to tell the story from the start and slowly lead up to this sequence. This works to create a sense of anticipation as to when this crash might actually take place, and also adds a great foreboding feeling when Momoko does finally get on a bike near the end of the movie. Despite this more seemingly serious aspect, the movie is at heart a comedy, and it's in this respect that the film succeeds so well. There are just tons of great gags here, everything from the recurring Jusco bit (think the Japanese equivalent of Walmart or K-Mart) to the tracksuit wearing, Yakuza conrolled, “Jersey Country”. Now, to be honest, not all of the jokes hit their mark here. There are some that tend to fall a little flat, but then I can't think of any comedic medium, even the Simpsons' during their glory years in the 1990's, that were 100% consistent with their jokes. The strength here is simply that the vast majority of them do succeed in generating a laugh while the screenplay and direction by Nakashima keep them constant enough that the ones that don't work will hardly even be an afterthought.

What makes this movie so admirable, though, is simply the phenomenal level of character development present, something so lacking in a good deal of modern cinema in Japan. As expected, this works to make the audience really grow attached to the characters and keep them interested as to where their exploits might lead. Of course the movie does a bulk of this in a very blunt fashion, as the two characters are given flashback narrative sequences into their past. However, given the more off the wall and very metaphoric world of Kamikaze Girls, where strange sequences are often inserted to generate a laugh and stress a point, these “origin pieces” seem natural and not at all shoehorned in as they might in a different flick. Character development isn't exclusive to these segments, though, as the two lead characters are constantly evolving during the course of the movie as their relationship continues to change. It's because of the script's emphasis on this aspect that their relationship amidst polar opposite philosophies and personalities is actually very believable, something which is no easy task given their outlandish characters. Character development isn't reserved for the two leads, though, as some of the supporting cast is fleshed out as well. The film's choice to even develop Momoko's parents, a wannabe-Yakuza and a loose women who ends up leaving her husband for the doctor who delivered Momoko, might seem like an odd one considering they hardly come into the story past the half way mark; however, it gives some great insight into Momoko's very cynical nature while also providing a good number of laughs.

In terms of the acting, this is another area where Kamikaze Girls shines. The two lead actresses, Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya, have an amazing degree of chemistry together to the point where it's simple nice to see them interact with each other on screen. The two actresses also both fit their respective roles perfectly. For example, Fukada pulls off the adorable, one would be hard pressed not to get touched when she takes offense to some “Yanki” spitting in front of her, yet cynical nature of her character perfectly. I was never much impressed with her more serious work in Onmyoji II (2003), but she seems to do wonders with her more untraditional character in this film. Tsuchiya also deserves a level of praise for her acting. Her range in particular is something to commend as she plays both the “biker chick” persona that she has in the film along with her more shy schoolgirl character that Ichigo used to be, as seen during a lengthy flashback. Her tearful scene after learning that Ryuji, for whom she had a crush on, is already engaged to her friend and mentor is also very credible and well acted, even if it seems a little over the top that it would generate this type of reaction considering she hadn't known Ryuji for very long. The rest of the cast here is fairly good as well, although no other performances really stand out or deserve much praise in their own right. However, the film is so focused on the two principal characters that even had the supporting cast been marred with horrible acting the movie still could have easily risen above it.

The movie doesn't just excel in terms of its story and acting, though, as production values in general tend to be great. The cinematography in the movie, for example, is also extraordinary, as the director of photography Shoichi Ato shows a good deal of finesse in his craft. His camerawork here mostly utilizes very stylish techniques with a lot of panning and movement within the same shot, although there are several more traditional approaches Ato tries with breathtaking results as well, with the best example being the sweeping crane shot as Momoko and Ichigo stand on a hillside.

Of course another aspect to consider as to why this film works so well is simply the well constructed pacing and flow of the movie. There really isn't a slow part of the film, as it's entertaining from start to finish as it quickly moves from one element to the next. The movie never really lets up, yet it never moves so quickly as to leave the audience behind or with a sense of confusion. This is especially praiseworthy given the manner in which the film can quickly jump from one setting to the next very quickly, as it's easy to imagine that editor Chiaki Toyama certainly had a tough task in trying to compile this all together, although the use of narration during a lot of the early sequences certainly helps.

In regards to the music, Yoko Kanno does a commendable job, even if her score tends to slip into the background without a good deal of memorable themes to its credit. Kanno's greatest strength, though, is simply her range, as she is more than capable of producing dramatic, retro (as seen during the grainy segments in Tokyo) and more outlandish pieces of music that the film might require with wonderful success.

In closing, Kamikaze Girls is one of those rare films that just seem to come together almost perfectly. By all appearances the movie seems like an improbable candidate for this level of praise, but Nakashima and his crew certainly seem to know what they are doing as they have managed to craft this remarkable little film. The movie clearly was a hit with audiences in Japan as well, as it wasn't long before movies like Nana (2005) came on the scene utilizing the same “female bonding” formula seen in this movie. As for those who are smitten by the more off-the-wall comedy style seen in this film, they might want to check out Gen Sekiguchi's Survive Style 5+ (2004), which was produced in the same year although the comedy is much more “mature” (i.e. “R” rating vs. “PG-13”) and lacks the kind of cute touch found in Nakashima's work.