Japanese Girls Never Die (Japan, 2016) [NYAFF 2017]
Those who read my reviews will know that I am a huge fan of Japanese actress Yu Aoi. Ever since I saw her in Hana and Alice (2004), I have been a great admirer of her work, particularly because of how soulful and precise her performances are, without any reliance on overacting or histrionics. But funnily enough, she was just one selling point of Japanese Girls Never Die. The others were the themes of sexual discrimination and misogyny and how it they are defined in present day Japan. Some of my favourite Japanese films of recent years deal with the same themes, notably Pun Homchuen & Onusa Donsawai’s Grace (2016) and Sion Sono’s Tag (2015) and Anti-Porno (2016). So Japanese Girls Never Die, with both Yu Aoi and the same thematic material as those earlier films, it was just too exciting to pass up.
The film starts off with a bunch of misfits causing havoc by spray-painting stencils of missing person posters. The film also features a gang of high school girls who are infamous for beating up men with baseball bats (A Clockwork Pink? Okay, I’ll stop.). The face on the missing poster is 27-year old Haruko Azumi (Aoi), an office worker who is unhappy at work, at home, and with her unrequited yearning for her childhood pal turned neighbour (Huey Ishizaki), who just happens to be beaten up by the same gang of girls.
A typical day of Haruko is filled with misogynistic and perverted male bosses making inappropriate comments about the age, appearance and relationship status of their female employees, all while trying to hire another female employee. By night, she navigates the stresses of living with her family of three generations, with her stressed mother and her aging grandmother.
We also have 20-year old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a spirited and bubbly girl who thrives on fun and excitement. She thinks she has found it in the form of a potential boyfriend, Yukio (Taiga), and the two apparently hit it off. But Yukio has other ideas. On the side, he starts off a grafitti team with his friend, the shy Manabu (Shono Hayama) and starts tagging the city. As Aina spots the two, she joins in and they all get inspired by a missing poster that happens to feature Haruko, and a viral sensation is born.
So basically there are two stories going on and the film is played out in a non-linear fashion, which admittedly takes quite a bit to get used to. But when you consider the far-fetched aspects (including fantasy and wish-fulfillment plots) and more grounded sides of the story (loneliness, ennui and sexual discrimination) are blurred together, it actually becomes very effective as it conveys the themes of the story in a distinct manner. A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Hiroki Shioya and editor Satoko Ohara, whom give the film a distinct look and feel, which applies to all three acts (and stories), leaving them easy to discern. Even pop culture, which director Matsui employed in his prior films like Wonderful World End (2015) is used in a satirical and metaphorical fashion.
Even with all of the hard work going on display from behind-the-scenes, the film also packs an amazing performance from Aoi. Showing subtlety, restraint and even a certain sense of cool whilst hinting a sense of anger, resentment and hostility, Aoi totally inhabits the character to the point that her presence has a larger impact than expected, even with the posters and graffiti plastered throughout the film. Takahata is bubbly and energetic as Aina, and although she might seem a bit petulant at first, she provides a fine contrast with Aoi in terms of providing generational contrast.
The supporting cast are all good, with the men (including Taiga, Shono Hayama and Huey Ishizaki) giving relatable, yet pathetic performances. Meanwhile, the women (including Akiko Kikuchi and Maho Yamada) make the most out their small roles, particularly Yamada, who gets some of the most incisive lines in the film.
And we get through a lot of themes here. Whether it’s office politics, family dynamics, portrayals of art, gender politics, Japanese pop culture, capitalism and many more, the film is absolutely jam-packed with ideas. Admittedly, not all these ideas are explored equally due to there being so many. The storytelling can be a bit off-putting in its non-linear fashion and the ending is a bit overdone, although it features a great animation scene by Ryo Hirano.
But the message is loud and clear with Japanese Girls Never Die delivering it in exuberant, vibrant, and even poignant fashion. And with Aoi as the face (and the heart) of its message, the film will linger in one’s mind for quite a while.
Japanese Girls Never Die was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on Sunday July 2.