Demolition Girl (2019) review

Introduction

While the field of indie-movies is thriving in Japan, most of these indie narratives do not succeed – or do not attempt – to gain a larger (international) exposure. Luckily, some Japanese directors ignore this national indie-circuit and attempt to gain exposure in the (inter)national festival circuit. One such director is Genta Matsugami who succeeded to world premiere his debut feature film Demolition Girl at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

Review

Cocoa Umeda (Aya Kitai), a girl from an impoverished background, works multiple part-time jobs in order to have some money for herself. While one job concerns selling sausages in a local theme park, the other one concerns acting in a strange kind of fetish movies where she has to trample garbage with her bare-feet.

Due to her family’s strained financial state, the thought of going to college has never crossed Cocoa’s mind. Despite her resolve of finding a job after graduation, her teacher and her friends convince her that college is not impossible. Then, one day, her aunt informs her that her sister saved up enough money for her to enter college.

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While one can classify Demolition Girl as a familial drama, this is only true if one understands the term familial drama in the sense that the drama primarily originates from the familial context. It is only due to the gambling behaviour of her father (Yohta Kawase) and the unproductivity of her lazy NEET brother (Kou Maehara) that Cocoa is forbidden to dream of college and driven to less orthodox ways to sustain a certain living standard – and hide her familial situation from her high-school friends.

But Cocoa’s familial context is not only marked by financial struggle, but also by a lack of ‘loving’ interactions. The interactions – be it by asking where their dinner is or by asking for money or to use her bike – only aim to use/abuse Cocoa as an instrument for their own personal gain. Their demands – and this is true scandal – efface her as subject (Narra-note 1). The fact that her subjectivity is of minimal importance is further emphasized by her father not knowing she’s about to graduate.

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It is thus not surprising that Cocoa desires to escape the subtly abusive and impoverished situation she feels imprisoned in. It is this desire and nothing else that forms the main narrative’s focus and propels the narrative forward. Due to Aya Kitai‘s honest and touching performance, the spectator is truly able to feel the hope that radiates from the possibility to realize her dream of escaping by entering a national university. The fact that this honest hope is so sensible for the spectator does not fail to empower the dramatic impact of the various (financial) obstacles that Cocoa is faced with. In truth, it is the tension between her hope and the injustices she is subjected to, that turns Cocoa’s path of suffering into a moving and, at times, infuriating experience.

One of these obstacles, by way of example, is introduced when Cocoa broaches the topic of the money her mother left for her at the dinner table. It is immediately apparent for the spectator that Cocoa’s money has disappeared via her father’s gambling hands. That Tokio, before knowing the money has disappeared on boat-races, angrily insists on receiving half of that money further adds to the injury that will befall her . While this unexpected financial obstacle is sad by itself, the true drama needs, once again, to be situated in the effacement of her subjectivity as such (Narra-note 2)

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In truth, this subjective effacement is sensible in every obstacle she’s confronted with. At no point in Demolition Girl, Cocoa’s subjective position is taken into account. Each injustice that befalls her, each injustice she is passively subjected to, damages her subjective position – a position driven by her desire to escape. Such damage, such path of suffering, can only have two possible outcomes: a violent demolishing outcome or one that constitutes a subjective change. Matsugami, contrary to what the title implies, opts to frame the latter. He decides to frame how a girl succeeds in taking full responsibility of her own desire (Narra-note 3).

Demolition Girl also touches upon the notion of sexuality/arousal. The fetish videos reveal that a non-sexual act like destroying garbage can become sexually satisfying due to the fantasmatical scenario’s – i.e. being squashed like garbage – they visualize. While this masochistic aspect might seems somewhat strange to many spectators, we would like to underline that the inclusion of masochistic tendencies in the sexual life of speaking beings is not uncommon – and certainly not a reason to classify those people as perverse.

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There is one scene in Demolition Girl that deserves special attention due to its symbolic richness. The scene in question shows Cocoa playing with an insect. This act, which echoes her fetish videos, translates in a powerful fashion her own position. Not only does this insect represent her father and her brother, it also represent, at a deeper level, no one other than herself. While this play evokes her fantasy of violently escaping the position of being passively subjected to the abusive other, her play also confronts her with the fact that she is the insect that is played with. The fact that Matsugami succeeds in evoking Cocoa’s complete subjective truth with such a simple shot suggests a firm understanding of the cinematic interplay of word and image.

While the narrative of Demolition Girl is framed with a simple mix of fixity and (slow) fluid spatial/following movement, there are two cinematographical exceptions to be noted. The first exception concerns the two instances that frame the framing of the fetish videos (Cine-note 1). This moments, evoking the amateurish filming of Kazuo (Ino Hiroko), are framed with shakiness and unruly camera movement. The other exception, the other instance where shakiness is used, is concerned with empowering Cocoa’s state of turmoil. It is only this latter choice, a choice so deliberately made, that indicates that Matsugami grasps the evocative potential of the cinematographical image (Music-note 1).

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With Demolition Girl Genta Matsugami has delivered one of the most emotionally powerful coming-of-age narratives of this year. While the concatenation of infuriating injustices foreshadows a violent retribution by Cocoa, Matsugami daringly subverts these expectations by revealing that such path of suffering can also be a formative experience, an experience that leads one to fully appropriate one’s desire as well as to take full responsibility over one’s future path.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: Note that in some cases Cocoa answer the demands of the others before they become formulated so she can escape from being objectified.

Narra-note 2: Cocoa’s father’s apology for spending the money is nothing other than an empty gesture. He apologizes following the rules of societal courtesy and not from a sense of guilt and a will to right his wrongs.

Narra-note 3: Those who say that Cocoa’s subjective change is not framed powerfully enough fail to see that her subjective shift eases her mind. This ease of mind subtly translates Cocoa’s shift from a passive position to an active position, from a position of letting herself be the object to be played with to a position of actively playing the game of life by herself.

Cine-note 1: This ‘wildness’ is most easily felt in the way zoom-ins and zoom-outs are used.

Music-note 1: Musical accompaniment is effective in supporting the emotional mix the narrative provided. Music empowers the touching moments, the hopeful moments and the more funny moments.

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