Maybe it’s just the way it seems in the media, but does Japan has more subcultures per square inch than it does actual populace? Kamikaze Girls looks at two of the least-similar subcultures you could imagine and finds they have more in common than you might think — that most of the people who swear allegiance to such things are simply looking to belong to something that’s a little brighter, a little noisier, a little more fun than everyday life. And like the very things it looks at, Kamikaze Girls is itself bright, noisy, and a lot of fun; it had me laughing more often than nearly anything else I’ve seen recently that billed itself as a comedy.
The two cultures in Kamikaze Girls are a) the “Lolita Girls”, female teenagers who dress like Little Bo Peep, and b) the bousozoku, or biker gangs. These are far from being the only two in Japan worth mentioning, though. Between the otaku — the near-antisocial fans of anime and manga and all the cultural products thereof — and those genuinely weird girls who dress up in bandages and fake bruises, you could lose count. Momoko (Kyoko Fukada, the pop star in Kitano’s Dolls and Himiko in Onmyoji II), the Lolita Girl, daydreams about rococo-ea France and uses her cutesy style to escape from the wretchedness of her surroundings.
They couldn't be more unalike, the Lolita Girl and the biker chick, but
they share one thing in common: the need for real friends.
The first fifteen minutes of the film are a hilarious fast-forward montage of Momoko’s early life, which sets the tone nicely for the rest of the film. Her father’s a useless ex-yakuza who ran small-time scams like selling knockoff Versace products from an open-air booth, and her mother ran off with her gynecologist shortly after Momoko was born. She moved out to the sticks with Dad to care for her grandmother (once a pretty wild girl herself, but now mostly relegated to snatching flies out of the air). When she’s not suffering through humiliation at school, Momoko dons her favorite frilly rococo dress and takes the train to her favorite boutique, “Baby The Stars Shine Bright,” where she drops bundles of money extorted tearfully from Dad.
One day Momoko decides to make some fast cash by hocking some of Dad’s surplus bootlegs. That’s when Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) shows up on the back of a tricked-out scooter, the living embodiment of everything Momoko finds appalling. She swears. She dresses in thrown-together mismatchings of stuff yanked off the discount racks at the local general-store chain. She headbutts anyone who disagrees with her. She spits. This last offense would normally get her drummed right out of Momoko’s house, but Ichigo is willing to pay an obscene amount of money for one of Dad’s fakes, so why scare her off?
The girls reach out to each other, however clumsily, from their own little cultural islands
to form something a little firmer than just whatever shared tastes they might have.
Ichigo starts hanging around, and before long a tentative friendship develops between the two girls. This is also where I sat up a little straighter and paid that much more attention (when I wasn’t nearly falling out of my chair laughing): Each of them would love dearly nothing more than to be left alone with their respective hobbies — if “hobbies” are the right words for the kind of monomania they experience — but they also know on some level that all this is no fun if they don’t share it with someone. I’ve felt this many times, as the things I am most fervently interested in are simply not shared by most of the rest of my family and even many of my friends. When you find someone, anyone, you can share that stuff with, you feel complete.
To that end, Ichigo starts to try and draw Momoko into her world with a fanciful story about an embroiderer-turned-gangster-girl, and Momoko takes Ichigo to “Baby”. Both turn out as hilarious disasters: Momoko turns out to be a killer pachinko player, and Ichigo ends up head-butting the owner of “Baby” in outrage when he takes Momoko’s hand and makes her keel over with sheer joy. But their mutual presence in each other’s lives set other things in motion, and the two of them are compelled to act as real friends, to defend each other and stick up for each other — something, ironically enough, that might not have happened if they were in the same cultural subgroup. (Shared tastes are not always the best basis for a friendship, because once you get past that, there often isn’t much else.)
The movie's gloriously goofy, punk-surreal approach
actually works in favor of the material instead of smothering it.
The director, Tetsuya Nakashima, is a new name to me, but if Kamikaze Girls is what he can do at his best then I’m deeply curious as to what he’ll try next. Many movies are style over substance; Girls manages to be style serving substance. Yes, it’s one of those movies where the film stock and camera angles seem to change every ten seconds, where people turn to speak directly to the camera and where an animated version of a flashback (courtesy of Mind Game / Animatrix creators Studio 4°C) is thrown in “to keep the kids from falling asleep.” But it all works here, because it’s all supporting people we care about. We really do want to find out what happens to these two misfit goofballs, so the movie can afford to stick its neck out more than a little bit as to how it tells their story. I’m glad they did.