I don’t know what type of box office numbers writer/director Masato Harada gets in his native Japan, but I am almost certain it isn’t astounding. As he did with “Kamikaze Taxi”, a social movie in the guise of a Yakuza revenge picture, Harada once again takes aim at what he perceives as the true underbelly of Japanese society. With 1997′s “Leaving” (or “Bounce ko gals”) the target of Harada’s criticism is male-female gender relations, or to be more specific, young girls-older men relations.
Actually, calling what transpires between the old men and young girls of Tokyo, Japan “relations” is giving it too much credit. The three heroines that make up “Leaving” have come to understand what society prizes most in them — their youth — and is using it to their advantage by working as call girls after school. Jonko (Hitomi Sato) seems to have it all figured out, although we suspect she doesn’t know half as much as she thinks she does. Raku (Yasue Sato) is the carefree one, setting up “dates” for high school friends but never going on them herself. Of the three, Lisa (Yukiko Okamoto) is new to the game, and has only succumbed because of a dire need for quick money.
Over the course of a day and a half, “Leaving” uses its three leads as vehicles to explore a year’s worth of living. The screenplay begins as two separate stories but merges about 40 minutes in when Lisa takes some seedy jobs that caters to perverted older men. She sells her panties, schoolgirl uniform, and gets involved in a “uniform video” where she and Raku run around as a videocamera tapes them. While the other girls prostitute themselves to make money to support their heavy consumerism, Lisa needs the money to move to New York, where she plans to begin a fresh new life.
But after two hoods steal her traveling money, Lisa has to rely on newfound friend Raku for help. Raku in turn sets Lisa up with Jonko. Over the course of the night, the three girls become fast friends, joined more by their shared experiences as teen girls in contemporary Japan than anything else. In an effort to quickly help Lisa raise the necessary funds to survive in New York, Jonko sets the two of them up on a series of quickie dates. Unfortunately they also cross an established pimp name Oshima (Koji Yakusho), who has warned Jonko before about her “amateur prostitution” getting in the way of his “professional prostitution.”
While Harada uses Yukiko Okamoto (“Another Heaven”) as his central figure, the real power behind “Leaving” is Hitomi Sato (the “Ring” films), who gives a fluid and flawless performance as the call girl with a plan. Having figured out long ago that she was born to be used, Sato’s Jonko doesn’t actually sell her body. Instead of sleeping with her johns, she knocks them out with a stun gun and robs them. It isn’t just her way to avoid sex, but also the only way she can get back at the world. Unlike Okamoto’s Lisa, who has a plan to escape her hopeless existence, Jonko has no such ambition, although one gets the feeling that she wishes she could be like Lisa and chuck it all for a new start.
It’s no mystery why we hardly learn anything about the girls’ home life, or see their parents. As the old saying goes, “Parents just don’t understand.” And in the case of “Leaving”, what the girls are going through and what youths in general are going through in modern Japan would seem like another world to their parents. Also, the series of perverted men the girls face in the course of the night and a half are more of a gathering of the worst of the worst to help the movie make its point.
What adult perspective we do get comes from Koji Yakusho (“Cure”) and Kaori Momoi, both playing veterans of the sex trade. While Yakusho’s Oshima grunts about the sad state of the prostitution business and teen girls in general, he can’t help but feel admiration for Jonko’s resourcefulness. Kaori Momoi’s Saki starts out as another adult seeking to use up Lisa’s youth, but ends up respecting her for her steady resolve to escape it all. In a way, both adults wish they could buck their own experiences and do more for the girls.
“Leaving” is an effective movie with terrific performances by its three teenage leads. While Hitomi Sato owns the screen every time she appears, Yasue Sato and Yukiko Okamoto earn their wings by holding their own, especially since their characters are written as understated compared to Sato’s hard-driving Jonko. In a world where a call girl can get beaten to a pulp and the perpetrator is called the “victim”, there’s very little mercy or respite for our heroines. We feel for them, for their plight, and hope they can manage to survive it somehow, although we get the feeling it may be futile.
Despite the subject matter and the description above, “Leaving” is not a pornographic movie. There are no depictions of sex and no nudity at all. The film, although very pessimistic and gritty, is not completely without sunshine. Like “Platonic Sex”, another good movie about being a teen and Japanese, “Leaving” does offer us a measure of hope, even if we’re not sure what it all amounts to, in the very end.
Masato Harada (director) / Masato Harada (screenplay)
CAST: Hitomi Sato …. Jonko
Yasue Sato …. Raku
Yukiko Okamoto …. Lisa
Jun Murakami …. Sap
Shin Yazawa …. Maru
Kaori Momoi …. Saki
Koji Yakusho …. Oshima