Back in 2004, it was golden times for fans of Japanese cinema. Not only was the output tremendously creative, it also received heaps of international recognition, which made it possible to actually buy and watch these films in local stores and theaters. Tetsuya Nakashima's Kamikaze Girls [Shimotsuma Monogatari] was one of the films that benefitted from this momentum. It's the kind of movie that would never find distribution nowadays, but back then people actually figured this could sell in the West. It's been a while since I last watched the film though, so I was looking forward to revisiting my introduction to Nakashima.
Kamikaze Girls was destined to become Nakashima's breakout film. After two less conspicuous but still recognizable features released in the late 90s, Kamikaze Girls was the first film where he let go of all his inhibitions and went full in. In that sense it feels a little like the film of a first-time director, but backed with enough experience to avoid any of the major first-timer traps. Add to that the perfect timing of release and you have a film that was bound to get noticed.
That said, Kamikaze Girls probably isn't the most accessible film when you're not familiar with Japanese (pop) culture. The comedy is pretty shameless and direct, with many of the jokes referencing typical Japanese phenomena. The very core of the film is set up around the unlikely friendship between a lolila girl and a motor chick, something that might be a little hard to grasp if it's your first time coming into contact with these cultural niches. Then again, the comedy is so over the top that it shouldn't take very long to catch up.
The story revolves around Momoko, a young lolita/Rococo-loving girl who is wise beyond her years, but as a results finds it hard to emotionally attach herself to people. Instead she favors everything sweet, cute and extravagant. Those things tend to cost a lot of money though and in an attempt to earn a quick buck, she starts selling counterfeit goods online. Her first customer is Ichigo, a rough and rugged motor chick who is looking for a cheap upgrade of her wardrobe. While the two are an unlikely couple of friends, they do seem to enjoy each other's company and before they realize it their affairs are completely entangled.
Visually Kamikaze Girls is a true joy. The graphical density is enormous, with detailed settings and well-planned camera work making sure there's always something to feast your eyes on. On top of that, the film is also extremely colorful, as if drenched with some color-enhancing filter. Nakashima also pulls outs all his editing and camera tricks, making for a very fast-paced, candy-colored and creative-looking film. It gets pretty kitschy at times, but that's in line with Momoko's Rococo fascination. Add to that some over the top animated sequences and you have a visually intense film.
The soundtrack is somewhat basic and mostly linked to the lolita/rock contradiction of its main characters. It works well enough, but rarely contributes to the film beyond that. It's not that problematic for a comedy, but Nakashima definitely could've done a bit more with the music. It's in fact the voices of the characters and their vocal mannerisms that leave a bigger impact, with the ultra-dignified speech of Momoko clashing hard with Ichigo's Yakuza-like tone. Maybe it's a weird thing to single out, but it's one of the elements that immediately pop up when thinking of this film.
The acting is good, but quite over the top. Don't expect any realistic performances, characters are all big fat stereotypes and behave accordingly. Kyoko Fukada proves she's more than just a singer/pop star, Anna Tsuchiya delivers the most divisive performance (I loved it but many people seem to dislike it). There are some nice secondary parts too, with Sadao Abe, Kirin Kiki and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa all making the best of the little screentime they get. Ultimately though, it's Fukada and Tsuchiya carrying the film and they do so with great conviction.
While Kamikaze Girls is a comedy through and through, the film also has a darker edge, stocked away right underneath the comedy. It's something that would grow bigger and more extreme in Nakamura's later films (to the point where it completely eclipsed the comedy), but which was already surfacing here. Momoko's lack of empathy, her troubled youth and neglective parents, the revenge-driven actions of the characters and the prevalent egotism ... Nakamura's characters live in a dark an uninviting world, it just happens to be presented in a very funny and colorful way.
Above all though, Kamikaze Girls is a lot of fun. It's a crazy, creative, vibrant film that keeps a pretty strict pace and only slows down a little towards the end of the film. But even then, there's a sprawling finale that pulls out all the stops. It's Nakamura's awakening as one of Japan's leading directors and deservedly so. The humor and characters are pretty niche though, so if you're not familiar with Japanese cinema it's probably easier to try a film like Confessions first. But if you're a fan of films like The Taste of Tea or Survive Style 5+ and you haven't seen this one yet, make it a priority.