Six years ago Mamoru Oshii's Nowhere Girl [Tôkyô Mukokuseki Shôjo] did a short festival round in the West, then came the big nothing. That's pretty frustrating since the man is my all-time favorite director. Now that I've seen the film it is easy enough to understand why few companies were eager to it pick up, but that's not at all a reflection on the quality of the film, merely an illustration of its somewhat impenetrable exterior and hard to sell qualities. It's the kind of film that works better when going in blank, and is destined to lead to disappointment when tackled with fixed expectations. So tread carefully if you haven't seen it yet.
The film industry still hasn't managed to find proper distribution channels for people seeking out particular films. Quality prints may exist, subtitles could be readily available, and the internet created ample opportunities for unlimited distribution, but rights holders simply don't care. It's a lack of respect for cinephiles that has been around for as long as I can remember, which has ultimately come to bite them in the ass through various forms of piracy. Maybe streaming will offer a more permanent solution, but we're clearly not there yet, as many films fail to find their way to the public still.
Nowhere Girl is an odd little beast. It carries many of Oshii's signature elements, but they are assembled in such a way that it feels like a film unlike any other in his oeuvre. Once you start analyzing the film it's easy to bring many elements back to Oshii's interests and hangups, but on the whole the film is a lot softer and toned back compared to his more genre-centric films. Though you might see this as a successful cover-up for the finale, it doesn't take away from the fact the first 70 minutes are very different from other Oshii projects.
The plot revolves around Ai, a young girl attending an art school. She is obviously very talented, but some kind of trauma is holding her back. The students don't like her because she gets special treatment, the teachers don't like her much either and Ai herself struggles with psychotic episodes. Meanwhile, the sound of choppers can be heard outside the school and increasingly intense earthquakes pester the students during classes. The only person willing to help Ai is the school nurse, but it seems that Ai will need to come to terms with her personal issues first.
Oshii never wastes a good chance for some visual experimentation, and he doesn't disappoint with Nowhere Girl. The film is draped in a frail, white haze that gives the film an ethereal quality. Oshii loves post-production color enhancements, films like Avalon and Red Spectacles are drenched in sepia tones, but the effect here is still a bit different. The camera work is minutely planned and very controlled, the editing gentle and non-disruptive. It's not his best-looking film, but the look is highly distinctive and memorable, and contributes heaps to the overall atmosphere.
The soundtrack also takes up a very prominent place, though the presence of Kenji Kawai is dearly missed. Shuhei Kamimura is a fine replacement, but his work lacks the hefty signature and the enormous impact of Kawai's unique and instantly recognizable work. There's also a rather strong reliance on famous classical music to set a tone, which can feel a little lazy. These are just minor complaints, as the way the score is used is well above average, but since Oshii's films have carried some of the most memorable soundtracks in the past, my expectations were a bit higher than normal.
The cast deserves big kudos, Nana Seino in particular stands out as a veritable talent. She has insane fighting skills and screen presence, but she actually manages to combine that with true acting chops, something not too common in the world of action cinema. As much as I love guys like Jet Li or Tony Jaa, they can't really handle drama very well. Seino on the other hand aces the first part of the film, then makes the sudden switch to female terminator without a bat of the eye. The rest of the cast is solid too, but they're completely overshadowed by Seino's performance.
Nowhere Girl is a film in two distinct parts, much like Avalon was. That's somewhat of a spoiler, and I realize it's no doubt best to know as little as possible going into the film, it's just impossible to not touch upon the film-defining turnaround when writing this review. The first 70 minutes are tranquil and quiet, with very short bursts of mania that build up to something bigger. That something is a sprawling finale that opens with an insane 5-minute action scene, equaling or even trumping some of the most notable scenes the genre has to offer. Maybe it's the contrast with what came before, but my jaw was all the way down of the floor. I know Oshii is capable of doing cool action scenes, but this was truly next level.
The only bad thing I can say about this film is that I was forced to wait so long before I could watch it, so a big cheer for those who could do what the entire film industry couldn't. Nowhere Girl is another excellent addition to Oshii's already impressive oeuvre. The audiovisual qualities are nothing less than impressive, the structure is meticulously executed, and the finale is one of the most memorable ever. Oshii will test your patience, but rest assured that it's worth it. Now for a distributor who has the balls to actually do its job. Don't hold your breath though.