The Dark Maidens (Japan, 2017) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2018]
High school senior Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) falls to her death from a building at the exclusive Seibo Maria Girls High School. She was the school administrator’s daughter and the President of the school’s prestigious literary club. Now, in the wake of her death, the remaining members of the literary club have assembled together for their annual storytelling night. Each of them has a story to tell. Each has another member of the club to accuse of murder.
The Dark Maidens is a teen-oriented thriller directed by Saiji Yakumo and based on the serialised novel Girls in the Dark by Rikako Akiyoshi. It adopts the well-test Rashomon (1950) formula of unreliable narrators and multiple points of view. That someone has murdered Itsumi does not seem to be in question. Identifying which resentful classmate did the deed means watching a succession of short narratives. Each girl’s story pins the blame on another student. It is easy to imagine how this portmanteau format would suit a serialised novel, but in this specific case the adaptation from prose to cinema stumbles badly. The Dark Maidens is overly long, and tonally inconsistent. It tries both the viewer’s patience and their suspension of disbelief, until the result is something that is rather boring and awfully silly. It gets sillier as it goes as well, so that its final act is a cavalcade of ridiculous twists and the denouement is entirely unconvincing. This is not a very good film by any proper measure.
Although it begins well enough, the stories soon leap spectacularly off the rails once accusations against literary club members shift from disloyalty and romantic infidelity into more fantastic territory. It is difficult to continue buying into a murder mystery when one of the suspects is literally accusing another of being a vampire. By this stage, the film is only halfway through, making what might have been a campy diversion into a genuine chore to complete.
That is in many respects a shame since The Dark Maidens does boast decent performances as well as some attractive production design. The literary club itself is a beautifully shot salon filled with antique furniture and leadlights. It gives the scenes set there a luxurious richness that pops off the screen. It also helps to smooth over some issues suspending disbelief over the various nested narratives throughout the film: the stories may be unrealistic, but the surroundings seem heightened and exaggerated anyway. It is unable to solve the narrative problems in their entirety, but it does alleviate the problems by an appreciable amount.
Amongst the cast, there are a few notable standouts. In the central role of Itsumi, who dominates each of the conflicting flashbacks, Iitoyo does a superb job of conveying a character whose behaviour appears to change as the film goes on without ever really making significant adjustments. Also worthy of note is American-Japanese actor Tina Tamashiro, here playing an Eastern European exchange student. She has an immediate and engaging presence, as she did in Koji Shiraishi’s risible horror mash-up Sadako vs Kayako (2016). She remains a promising talent desperately in need of higher-quality material. There are other decent performances from Nana Seino, Riria Kojima and Yuna Taira. Fumika Shimizu, as club vice-president Sayuri, is much less convincing, and plays her character’s hand much too early for it to have what one assumes was the desired effect.
While one could argue that the campy tone and the melodramatic emotions of The Dark Maidens will still appeal to its target market, the bottom line is that there are many much better films produced with those tones and emotions produced in Japan every year. The Dark Maidens is entirely surplus to requirements and will be soon and mercifully forgotten.
The Dark Maidens is part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.