Sometimes animated, sometimes strange, but always entertaining, “Kamikaze Girls” belong with recent Japanese fare such as “Swing Girls”, “Waterboys”, and “Ping Pong”, and considering the international success of those three films, it’s not bad company at all. Like its two leads, “Girls” is a rather eccentric film, essentially a movie about teens that manages to be surreal, dramatic, and comedic all at the same time, but not necessarily in that order. Without pushing buttons or being overtly manipulative, Tetsuya Nakashima’s film is funny and touching without ever giving the impression of trying too hard, or trying too much, which might be its one Achilles Heels.
“Kamikaze Girls” opens in spectacular fashion, with too-eccentric-for-words high school teen Momoko (Kyoko Fukaka, “Onmyoji 2”) on a mo-pad when she is broad-sided by a delivery truck and goes flying through the air in slow motion. But wait, this scene actually occurs toward the end of the film, so Momoko freezes time and takes us back to the beginning. We learn that Momoko was a strange child who enjoyed being alone, and is the product of a failed gangster father and a hard-drinking mother who quickly dumps her husband to marry the doctor who delivered Momoko before going on to enter a beauty pageant while in her ’40s.
The father is at first successful selling knock-off Versace products in the streets; that is, until he decides to “merge” one knock-off product with another, thus incurring the wrath of the original owners, thus earning his loser tag and getting chased out of town by the Yakuza. Father and daughter ends up in Grandma’s house in the countryside, where young Momoko learns to love isolation and indulge in frilly dresses in the style of a bygone French era using money she cons from her loser father. Into Momoko’s contented life rides female bike gang member Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya), a tough talking, cussing, and spitting girl. The two girls become reluctant friends — or actually, Ichiko keeps finding reasons to forcibly conscript Momoko’s services.
The rest of the film is just as random in nature, with Momoko breaking through the fourth wall whenever she feels like it, such as to shorten some of Ichiko’s gang stories. Meanwhile, Momoko continues to daydream of her beloved Rococo period, from which she has patterned her life (not to mention wardrobe). Such is “Kamikaze Girls”, a film that can’t possibly be taken seriously. How else to explain director Tetsuya Nakashima’s many off-the-wall techniques, such as Momoko flying through the air whenever appropriate, or background characters indulging in CGI price checks?
As a comedy, the script works more than it doesn’t, offering up plenty of laughs throughout much of the film. And although Momoko’s oddball behavior is, well, odd in the beginning, you quickly get used to it, and soon seeing a Japanese girl walking around in strange dresses barely registers. The same for Ichiko, whose tough girl act always manages to be amusing, if only because they provide such stark contrast to the emotionally unavailable Momoko. One of the film’s best scenes is in the beginning when a young Momoko dishes out life advices to her hopeless mother.
Ichiko, on the other hand, is quick-tempered and violent, and sees no harm in head-butting the genteel Momoko on a whim, or abducting her into the city and forcing her to play Pachinko — which, much to her chagrin, Momoko realizes she’s a wiz at. “Kamikaze Girls” does get a bit heavy toward the end, but it’s nowhere near being the left field melodrama you find in most Korean comedies. On the whole, there’s a very good balance to the film thanks to writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima, who uses CGI sporadically but effectively, and never overdoing on the “fourth wall” gags.
What really makes the film work are the excellent performances of its two female leads. Kyoko Fukada is especially good as the oft-kilter Momoko, and equaling appealing is Anna Tsuchiya as the faux bad girl. The two young women have excellent chemistry, and their scenes together are what make “Kamikaze Girls” as good as it is. The only real shortcoming with “Kamikaze Girls” is a noticeable lack of emotional ambition. The film really doesn’t have all that much to say, with most of its highlights justified by either its quirks or technical conceits. There are no real truths to be glean from Ichiko’s quest to thank her gang leader/mentor, or Momoko’s sudden realization that she’s pretty good at this whole embroidering thing.
By film’s end, I can’t say if there was anything too deep or substantive about “Kamikaze Girls”. It’s a highly entertaining film with great comedy throughout, but maybe its problem is that it never found much time for anything more in-between the laughs. Then again, even if the film had no greater point other than to be light hearted and, on occasions even touching, it certainly succeeded with flying colors.
Tetsuya Nakashima (director) / Tetsuya Nakashima (screenplay)
CAST: Kyoko Fukada …. Momoko Ryugasaki
Anna Tsuchiya …. Ichiko Shirayuri