While (…) [the] narrative lacks some (…) provocative punch (…) the political protest message (…) is [nevertheless] sincerely felt.
From time to time, ominous signs underline the various problems the Japanese society has to cope with. Men aren’t showing interest in relationships with women – the opposite is equally true – and the ongoing low birthrate that is produced thereby made 2017 the first year in which the Japanese population actually shrunk. On a more deeper societal level, sexual harassment is still prevalent, with one third of the woman reporting some form of sexual harassment in 2016.
It is in this societal atmosphere that Mariko Yamauchi wrote her novel Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei (2013), a novel taking this societal reality as its subject, and in which the adaptation of the novel to the silver screen was realized. Can the young and promising director Daigo Matsui, known from narratives like Sweet Poolside (2013) and Our Huff and Puff Journey (2015), translate the empowering effect of modern women the novel contained (general note 1)?
The first focus point of the narrative is the 28-year-old office lady Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), who is still living at home with her parents and her senile grandmother. As time goes by, she finds some comfort and escape of her dreary existence in the arms of a former classmate, the social recluse Soga (Huwie Ishizaki). The 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), the second focus point of the narrative, lives an energetic and almost too positive life. On her coming of age ceremony she meets Yukio (Taiga), with who she hooks up with. Inspired by a documentary about Banksy’s graffiti art that Aina gave for his birthday, Yukio and Manabu (Shono Hayama), a former classmate, decide to form their own guerilla graffiti gang, Kilroy. Their fame suddenly rises when they starts stenciling the missing person’s poster of Haruko all over town. The third focus point of the narrative is a gang of wild teenage girls, who for unknown reasons, have started beating up men in the middle of the night.
Japanese Girls Never Die has a rather complex narrative structure, mixing flashbacks, flash-forwards, repetition of shots and chopped scenes, which reveal different sides of a given scene as the narrative progresses – together into an engaging experience. The juxtaposition that is born out of this mix, the future where Haruko is missing as contrasted with her past, strengthens the sadness that the unfolding of Haruko’s narrative evokes. The structural mixing is joined by a narrative mixing, as three different narratives (Haruko, Aina, and the girls gang) intermingle. This intermingling creates a sensible narrative space larger than the space the narrative parts in seclusion would create, evoking Japanese society as a whole. Furthermore, it is by using the different narrative threads that Japanese Girls Never Die is able to realize its purpose: a critique against the way in which men relate themselves to women in Japanese society.
Throughout the narrative social expectations concerning marriage, pregnancy, femaleness, as conditioned by the patriarchal societal system, are unearthed and the rather demeaning emotions the lack of fulfilling these expectations evoke are touched upon. The objectifying reduction of women to their appearance as a shining object and even as an object of exchange also vividly passes by. Luckily, these ideas about the gender role distribution are immediately denounced, as the patronizing rudeness by which they are vocalized is sensibly underlined. But by painting this gendered societal reality for the spectator, Japanese Girls Never Die accentuates how powerful the patriarchal structuring still is, confining the freedom by which women can realize themselves as women as such. In other words, the narrative patchwork stresses that it is precisely the position of the male subject that is problematic on diverse levels (relationships, family, working environment, …) of Japanese society. The counterweight to this reality is only found in the narrative thread of the violent attacks from high-school girls, as they subvert the sexualized image of the schoolgirl in uniform, an image sensible in the phenomena of paid high school dating and idols for instance. It is a pity that this counterweight, this confrontation with the dynamic of power between the sexes, remains somewhat underexposed and, as such, falls somewhat short in being provocative. Nevertheless, these attacks and, in this respect, the stenciling of Haruko’s missing-person image, glances to what lies beyond any protest of patriarchy: the enjoyment, the unable to contain jouissance that a capitalist society causes.
Japanese Girls Never die boasts a somewhat eclectic cinematographical style, a blend of diverse camera techniques adjusting itself to narrative needs (cine-note 1). This eclectic approach gives the cinematography a certain fluency and the ability to underline the crux of a given scene. What also deserves to be mentioned is the approach of Hiroki Shioya, the cinematographer, to colour (Cine-note 2). Whereas the narrative space of Azumi is painted in more subdued colours, enforcing the emptiness in Azumi’s life, the narrative space of Aina, which shares more often than not the same colour palette, appears to be more colourful overall. Furthermore, the narrative space of Azumi feels rather empty for the spectator, as the cinematography, which focuses on the restraint nature of her presence, underlines the space she inhabits as such. This is in contrast with the space surrounding Aina, a space emptied by its emptiness by the energy that is captured on the screen.
Even though the narrative is infused with energy by Mitsuki Takahata’s performance as Aina, it is mainly in the unhappiness and depressed nature of Azumi, so compellingly brought alive by Yu Aoi, that the spectator finds his anchor point to vividly experience the unfolding of her narrative. We share her sadness, we feel the emptiness of her life, but we also warmly experience the short moments of enjoyment. The graphic stencils of her missing poster, acting in the narrative as reminders of the fate that will befall her, enforces the designated sadness, her lack of vigor, and the emptiness of her narrative space, and drapes the warmness of her enjoyable moments with a certain melancholy. And even though the narrative structure enforces Aoi’s performance, it is her fabulous performance as the depressed woman with a life on the road to nowhere, that empowers the narrative structure as a whole and the themes it aims to express.
While Daigo Matsui’s inventive structured narrative lacks some powerful provocative punch overall, it is Yu Aoi’s movingly and heartfelt performance that ensures that the political protest message of “Japanese Girls Never Die” is sincerely felt. Instead of viewing women as the cause for the falling birthrate and the high taxes, as the two male co-workers of Azumi do, “Japanese Girls Never Die” underlines that Japan, as supported by the female collective, has to put its patriarchal structure as such and the men it produces into question. Then and only then will female subjectivity, in all its radical dimensions, be able to be appreciated.
General note 1: This review was first published in a slightly altered form on Asian Film Vault.
Cine-Note 1: While most scenes are framed using a steady viewpoint, the framing of violence is always framed with a certain shakiness, focusing on the impact of the violence on the male victim.
Cine-note 2: The difference in in colour is for instance experienced in the blending of the sex-scene of Haruko with and the sex-scene of Aina with Yukio. While one is colourful and characterized by flashy colours, the other is framed in the darkness, using more subdued colours.