Demolition Girl (Japan, 2018) [OAFF 2019]

A man’s get up and go is what defines him, according to the writer Yukio Mishima. If that’s the case then Cocoa Umeda, the main protagonist of Genta Matsugami’s debut film, has a lot going for her. Super-smart and determined, she seems like a student who can be anything she wants but she faces a tough challenge in escaping the poverty of her background in a film that mixes class analysis with a coming-of-age story.

Cocoa (Aya Kitai) lives in a small rural city. It feels like a slow and tranquil place where the biggest events are the seasonal festivals but for Cocoa and her friends things are getting intense as they approach their final exams and high school graduation. Cocoa could go on to higher education because she has potential but her options are limited by her financial situation.

After her mother passed away, her working-class family was reduced to an amiable but lazy father named Kazuo (Yota Kawase) who gambles and a borderline hikikomori brother named Tokio who lives the life of a layabout after failing to make a mark in Tokyo as one half of a manzai duo. In a few deft scenes in their danchi apartment we see the rotten situation the girl is in as she plays the part of provider for the trio and as charming as Yota Kawase’s laid-back performance can be, we begin to resent the men who live a couple of levels above squalor and cling to Cocoa for cooking, cleaning, and cash which she earns working at a hotdog stall in a theme park on weekends.

Cocoa can’t afford to think about higher education. She expects to continue supporting her family. To earn a little extra she makes the fateful choice to work as a video fetish performer for an amateur director named Naoki who records her destroying things with a baseball bat and her feet. However, when an aunt tells Cocoa her mother saved some money just for her to go to university, the girl can dream again and becomes determined to escape the stifling inertia of her rural hometown by entering a national university, which costs 3 million yen. She just has to reach that magical figure and she might be able to change her life…

Set-up over, the second act of the film follows Cocoa’s efforts. Kitai, a fresh face on the film scene, takes the lead role and imbues her character with a well of passion and defiance that tugs at the heart. Spunky and smart, a firecracker with defiance, resilience and common sense, she tackles things with gusto and the camerawork and film’s rhythm really reflect her efforts by being fluid, breezy and energetic. It stand in contrast to the quagmire of home and through seeing her work to better herself we believe in her ability to escape. Drama comes from seeing whether she can or not as elements of crime and family crisis get thrown into the narrative.

The film is at its best when it looks at Cocoa’s climb out of poverty as we see the depth of her determination in numerous sequences of her studying, stacking 1000 yen notes from work and solving problems that affect her quality of life. This is contrasted with the easier way of life her better-off but loyal friends enjoy thanks to their parents. Extra urgency to her situation is added by betrayals she suffers at the hands of the deadbeats but we hear their tales of failure, which humanise them. The most poignant is gained from Naoki, a talented youngster going to seed, who was the other half of Tokio’s manzai act and stews with regrets over chances not taken. His hard-won experience leads him to make astute observations and a direct and powerful appeal to Cocoa that anyone who has lived a working-class life will have heard: “Don’t end up like us.”

One can see how a need for money and naivete leads Cocoa to try the video fetish stuff which is attention-grabbing especially because it opens the film but it is tastefully shot as far as one can do such a thing, although it could be accused of having its cake and eating it at one point as the foot fetish angle is shown via Naoki’s viewfinder… More importantly it provides drama for later on as criminals get involved but Matsugami’s script doesn’t lean too heavily on this angle. We always have Cocoa’s social situation firmly in our sights and that is compelling itself.

Just as interestingly is how simply the film lays out possible fates for average girls in Japan. Cocoa’s friends with money will either bow to social pressures and start a family or enter whatever university their grades get them to (barring any sexism scandals blocking female applicants) but it falls on working-class Cocoa to be an agent of positive aggressive female agency as she struggles to define her own path in life and fights for her future. Which is not to say she is alone in her struggles. If you can’t choose your family, you can choose your friends and sequences in the film capture the closeness Cocoa feels to two other girls as they walk around town confidently and revel in being with each other, aware that this may be the last time they can be free and together.

The Japanese title for this indie gem is Joshi Kosei Elegy or, to directly translate that, High School Girl Elegy and it is fitting. The moment of graduation from high school is the start of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is when people begin to shed the safety in conformity and rules but Cocoa has been doing that for a while now and we believe in her abilities to survive and in that open ending when she looks directly into the camera we believe that she will achieve what she sets her mind to but just for that precious moment before graduation, she can revel in friendships and dreams.

Demolition Girl is showing on March 10 and 12 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.