Let's start with a statement. Ken Ninomiya is by far one of the most interesting directors working in Japan today. The man has flair, he has vision, he represents a group of people often ignored in cinema, and he has dedication. If you haven't heard of his name before, it is because his work doesn't smell enough of Koreeda or Hamaguchi, which reduces his chances of international exposure to near zero. The Midnight Maiden War [Mayonaka Otome Sensô] is his latest work and once again showcases his enormous talent, though I wouldn't be surprised if it flies by completely unnoticed once again.
If cinema has one tremendous flaw, it's its inability to give a proper voice to younger people. Not that there is a lack of films with young(er) characters, on the contrary, but these films are almost always directed by old folks, who are more prone to revisit their own youth than probe into contemporary youth culture. And even when they try, their efforts often come off flawed and contrived. Ninomiya on the other hand appears to have a strong connection to more current youth culture niches. It makes the characters in his films that much more interesting, certainly in a film like The Midnight Maiden War.
If you come across any reviews, there's a considerable chance you'll see a mention of Fincher's Fight Club. There are as many differences as there are similarities between both films, still, I think the comparison is pretty fair, certainly understandable. Ninomiya makes sure his take is different and unique enough, but the underlying themes and the structure of the film seem to reference Fincher's cult hit quite a bit. The answer to "who did it better" probably depends on people's personal affinity with Japanese/American cinema, though I don't think it's a question that deserves much in-depth exploration. The Midnight Maiden War stands well enough on its own.
The plot revolves around a bored, dispirited college student. After making a real effort to get a scholarship, he finds the lectures tedious and wasteful. When he confronts one of his teachers, he becomes a viral sensation. His life changes when he meets "Black Suit", a rebel genius who loves to cause disturbances to upset the status quo. The two start to hang out, and before they know it, they are heading a movement of outcasts and rebels who feel life and society isn't giving them what they need. It doesn't take long before things begin to spiral out of control.
While there is a clear and stronger focus on narrative in The Midnight Maiden War, Ninomiya makes sure there are plenty of visual touches throughout that provide that level of polish I crave. The ending stands out, but the hotel scene right before is just as beautiful, sporting delicate camera work, bold use of light and color, and perfect editing. The costumes in this film deserve a mention too, as they underscore the non-mainstream niches these characters occupy, without going over the top or being too obvious. They also betray a closer connection to the characters than most directors are capable of. The film isn't the visual feast that were Ninomiya's earlier films, but there is still plenty to ogle at.
But it's once again the soundtrack that makes the biggest impact. Ninomiya's films are always perfectly scored, sporting soundtracks that don't just fit the atmosphere to a T, but also help dictate the mood of key scenes. Regardless of whether it's an established classic or an [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3LKN98q-8A]unknown dance floor zinger[/url] with hardly any views on YouTube (and with many of them coming from people who have watched the film), the music is always a key ingredient of the success. Ninomiya gives another true masterclass in how to make a score work for you, I can only hope other directors take notice.
The performances are pretty great too, even when there aren't too many familiar faces around. The cast seems very much at ease on Ninomiya's sets though, and that shines through in their performances. Even in a film like this, where it's less about the characters than the plot they are wrapped up in, Ninomiya and his cast find room to have them stand out from other films, giving the characters that extra bit of appeal. I don't think any of the actors could carry a film by themselves, but their collective performance here is well worth a mention.
The first hour or so is relatively aimless. The premise is clear enough, and it's not as if there is nothing happening, but it's mostly a very thorough introduction to the characters, while setting up some of the key pieces that will come forward much later on. It takes a while before you understand where the film is working towards, which will no doubt put some people off. Personally, I consider it a clear strength of The Midnight Maiden War, adding to the impact of the finale and making the middle part all the more intriguing. It just helps to be a bit more adventurous here.
Even though Ninomiya's latest doesn't immediately grab you like his earlier films do, there's a baseline quality present that betrays his immense skill and talent. The build-up is meticulous and the mystery slow to reveal itself, which pays off when the finale finally starts to take form. The stylish cinematography and superb sound design create a unique and tangible atmosphere, the performances and strong characterization add extra flair to the whole. When the end credits appeared I wasn't quite ready to let go of the film, which is always a good sign in my book. A superb film, whether most of you will ever be able to watch it is something else entirely.