Reviews Too Late: Kamikaze Girls

by wjw on April 23, 2008

So having finished This is Not a Game, and having finished— I think— the Big Mystery Project I Still Can’t Talk About, I sat down with relief and pleasure to view Kamikaze Girls (2004), which on one hand is a coming-of-age story set in Japan and on the other hand is about aliens, or at any rate alien cultures not suitable for export.

The movie is based on a novel by Novala Takemoto (“Wild Rose”), who is pretty eccentric himself, being a pot-smoking, heterosexual designer of lolita fashion described as having “a young lady’s charisma.” (Needless to say, he’s also a science fiction fan.)

The Japanese title of the film and novel is Shimotsuma Monogatari, “Shimotsuma Story,” and has nothing to do with kamikazes one way or another.

The film opens with Momoko, the heroine, zooming across the rural Japanese countryside on her motor scooter. She’s hit by a truck carrying a load of cabbages and flies through the air, mentally saying goodbye to her grandmother and useless father. At which point she remarks, “This is a pretty short movie. Maybe I’d better start earlier,” and she does.

Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) is the product of a broken home who opts to live with her father, because he’s less conventional and more entertaining. He’s also a failed yakuza and a forger of Versace and Universal Studio products. When the legitimate owners of these copyrights come looking, he has to relocate to rural Shimotsuma.

This is a problem for Momoko, because she’s a “sweet lolita.” Japanese lolitas have nothing to do with the novel, or with leering Humberts, but are a subculture who dress up in elaborate lacy costumes inspired by Victorian baby dolls. Momoko eats mainly sweets, or at any rate pink things, while dreaming of living at the rococo court of Louix XV.

At any rate Momoko, prancing with her parasol down rural roads while avoiding the buffalo flop, does not find a lot of support for her lifestyle in Shimotsuma, where everyone gets their clothing from the Japanese equivalent of Wal-Mart. She doesn’t seem to mind this. Despite the frills, she’s a surprisingly strong character, with a rather depressed but realistic view of humanity. She doesn’t expect much from people: she prefers a world of fantasy.

Enter Ichiko, played by bad-girl rocker Anna Tsuchiya. Ichiko wants to buy up all Momoko’s stash of fake Versace. Ichiko is a “yanki,” which seems to have little to do with actual Yankees, but appears to refer to people devoted to extremely individualistic behavior. Ichiko is also a member of an all-girl biker gang, “bikes” in this cases being scooters, because this is still rural Japan after all.

What being an individualistic yanki has to do with bikers who all act and dress alike is one of those contradictions that the movie is destined to explore.

In any case Tsuchiya’s performance as Ichiko is remarkable. Swearing, swaggering, spitting, and talking Japanese like a guy while dressing like a schoolgirl from Hell, Ichiko is about as genuine a biker as Momoko is a genuine Versailles courtier. The artificiality of their behavior is highlighted by the scenes of Shimotsuma, with its rice paddies and water buffalo, against which their stances are played out.

As the movie progresses, we find out who these kids really are. And it’s Ichiko’s machismo that proves fragile, while Momoko’s individuality is shown to be based on true inner strength. It’s Momoko, in the end, who ends up taking on a girl gang with a baseball bat. (Which I mention just to show you that the film isn’t entirely about dressing up.)

Despite a complete lack of interest in either frilly fashion or biker gangs, I found myself liking this film a lot. Part of this is the extremely witty way in which the movie is assembled: lots of cross-cutting, ironic visual commentary on the action, satire on consumerism, burlesque, parody, and clever use of music. The plotting is quite keen. The teen angst is real but we’re not forced to take it any more seriously than it deserves, and the two principals are attractive.
I’m sure the jokes didn’t all translate, but there were plenty left over.
Rebecca S. April 24, 2008 at 12:36 am

These reviews too late are a terrific idea and a public service. I hadn’t heard of this movie before, and now I have it on order at Mike’s Movie Madness.

Thanks. I think.

And congrats on finishing the book!

Thai April 24, 2008 at 1:54 am

I would never have given it a try until your review… I’ll let you know

Synova May 1, 2008 at 2:52 am

I saw this!

It was fabulous in that sort of untranslatable alien way you mention… just the biker girls on scooters makes the mind bend. But the social commentary was there and entirely accessible regardless.

I give your review a double A+!

Now I want to find it and watch it again.

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