FANTASIA 2017 REVIEW: Japanese Girls Never Die
– By Sooz Webb
With an eye catching title like Japanese Girls Never Die, you’d be forgiven for expecting the latest J-horror offering. Perhaps something concerning legions of undead schoolgirls, or some kind of vampire flick, where beautiful young girls are forever preserved in tragic immortality. Not quite, my friend. The film tells a much more socially relevant, but equally scary story. One that still affects modern day Japan and, to a wider extent, the entire globe. It recounts a tale of oppression, the exploitation of the female sex and the misogynistic views used to browbeat women into submission.
Now, before you say: ‘Geez, love, put away the lighter! What did that bra ever do to you’? Calm down, sweetheart. It’s not a piece that criticizes or lambasts (at least not directly). Instead, it intricately weaves three different stories together, and as we watch, they become intrinsically linked, fused with anarchic, pop-punk aesthetics, to highlight and educate through ethereal weirdness.
The film concerns 27 year old Haruko, a single girl who still lives in a house inhabited by three generations of her family. She exists in a state of apathy: tensions bubble at home, her love goes unrequited by a childhood friend, and her male colleagues belittle her, criticizing her clothes and *shock horror* unmarried status. Not only do they sit about and spout their misogynistic diatribe at anyone who’s listening, these neolithic mouthbreathers earn a salary seven times that of their female counterparts. Suffocated by glass ceilings and monotonous subjugation, Haruko disappears, sparking a two-fold rebellion, of vandalism and violence.
Inspired by the image of Haruko on missing persons posters which line the streets, Yukio and Manabu form the graffiti team Kilroy with Aina – another woman maltreated by her male peers. Gregarious and eager to please, she is traded between the lads like a sex toy, and slut shamed for her behaviour afterwards. Shackled by exploitation and berated into submission, Aina is trapped in a toxic relationship, while, ironically, their tag of missing Haruko becomes a symbol of freedom and hope to others. Empowered by the image, a group of Japanese schoolgirls take to the streets. But instead of displaying the usual coquettish and coy behaviour associated with teenage girls, they are brutal and barbaric. Gender biased and angry, they start viciously attacking men, with no distinction. All are judged guilty.
Aesthetically, Japanese Girls Never Die is a truly beautiful movie. Softly weaving strands of Haruko’s plight between vibrant, punky images of street art and anime inspired violence, it’s gorgeous to behold. Indeed, it highlights the notion that art is powerful enough to spark a revolution, and the films underlying message is emotive and engaging enough for people to take note. Unfortunately, it’s slightly buried beneath a nonlinear structure, which, until you get your head around it and work out what’s happening, acts as somewhat of a distraction. It’s the film’s ever present sense of atmosphere which compels us to keep watching, combined with a heart wrenching performance from Yû Aoi as Haruko, whose forlorn rejection of society’s constraints is delicate yet dominant. However, her willingness to fade into obscurity doesn’t really have the feminist punch that the filmmakers want to achieve. I understand the importance of what Haruko came to symbolise, nevertheless I disagree that disappearing is the way to achieve liberation and make your cause known.
Similarly, while I appreciate the short-skirted, kung-fu badassery of Japanese schoolgirls as much as the next person, I don’t condone the use of violence to solve a problem. As gorgeous as those scenes were, they left me a little cold. Of course, it’s all purely metaphor, less a call to arms and more a pause for contemplation. An invitation for girls to rise up and kick sexism where it hurts, but the table turning and battering of men made me uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point. But we’re defined by our actions. If we strive for equality, then all should be treated equal.
Striking and hypnotic, if a little disjointed, Japanese Girls Never Die highlights an age old problem. And while it doesn’t offer any solutions, it speaks out and makes itself known. A positive step in highlighting issues, and a catalyst for empowerment to those who may need it. Critiquing modern society, it seeks to shine a light on the monster that lurks in offices and homes, revealing that inaction may make you a martyr, but to overcome persecution, you must make your voice heard.