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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Naughty and nice, sugar and spice



Shimotsuma Monogatari

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Youth fashion in Japan used to march in lockstep from trend to trend, led by magazines with names like pandas (An An, Non No). No more. Tribes of conformist individualists still exist, all wearing the same styles and sporting the same attitudes in defiance of the world, but they are smaller and more diverse than a generation ago.

News photo
Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya in "Shimotsuma Monogatari"

Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon swarms with teenage nails that refuse to be pounded down, in everything from biker leathers to Little Miss Bo Peep frocks. Come Monday morning many of them are back in their sailor dresses in the classrooms of Saitama or Chiba, looking very pounded down indeed -- until next Sunday.

It's easy to laugh at these weekend rebels -- and Tetsuya Nakashima's "Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)," based on a novel by Novala Takemoto, has cheeky fun with its two fashionista heroines, who occupy opposite ends of the sexual role-playing scale. But Nakashima, an in-demand TV commercial director who made the 1998 family comedy "Natsu Jikan no Otonotachi Happy Go Lucky," goes beyond cleverly designed, cartoony sight gags to uncover his heroines' psychic underpinnings, from their messed-up childhoods to their philosophies of life.

His brand of semiabsurdist, carefully stylized filmmaking is verging on cliche by now (see the recent movies of Tim Burton and the Coen brothers), but Nakashima soars past any models, foreign or domestic, into a candy-colored realm of his own. However distant from the gray Monday morning Japan of reality, its giddy, grrrl-powered energy is infectious -- and has made "Shimotsuma Monogatari" a surprise hit. Also, production company TBS is being flooded with offers from foreign buyers following screenings at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

The English title -- "Kamikaze Girls" -- may have something to do with it, but the two principals, frilly Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) and punkish Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya), are hardly anyone's self-immolating stereotypes.

Momoko, as she explains in a voice-over narration, was conceived following a chance encounter between a cowardly, oafish yakuza (Hiroyuki Miyasako) and a drunken, scatter-brained bar hostess (Ryoko Shinohara). Unable to make it as a tough guy, Dad starts hawking cheap Versace knock-offs (with misspelled labels) that turn out to be a hit with brand-conscious consumers.

When the story proper starts, Momoko is 17 and living with Dad in Shimotsuma, Ibaraki Prefecture -- a burg in the middle of the rice paddies. Mom has long since vanished from the scene, while Dad is still an irresponsible lout.

To Momoko none of this matters: She is living in her own fantasy world, inspired by the rococo, blissful frivolity and gloriously ornate fashions. The good folks of Shimotsuma may do all their clothes shopping at Jusco -- that temple of the cheap and prosaic -- but Momoko journeys three hours by train to Daikanyama, where she spends every last yen on the lacy concoctions of Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a boutique that takes its fashion cues from Victorian dolls.

It takes guts to wear this stuff in the wilds of Ibaraki -- but Momoko, a stoic to the core ("We are born alone, live alone and die alone," she intones at one point), ignores the stares and taunts.

Peddling the fake Versace on the Internet to finance her shopping sprees, she attracts the attention of Ichiko, a biker on a 50cc scooter, but a tough cookie nonetheless, who snarls and spits at the slightest provocation. One day, Ichiko barges into Momoko's house on business -- and detects a kindred rebel spirit, however buried in froufrou. The two girls become allies -- if not yet friends.

The story, such as it is, revolves around their quest to find a legendary embroiderer in Daikanyama, the only one Ichiko feels is worthy of stitching a design on a tokkofuku for the leader of her all-woman biker gang, The Ponytails. Ichiko also wears this garment -- a long, loose-fitting coat much favored by antisocial types with rightist tendencies -- but her background, we learn, is strictly middle-of-the-road, while in her childhood she was more wimp than warrior.

In the course of their adventures, Momoko learns these and other facts about Ichiko, while revealing her own talents for embroidery -- and pachinko. Clearly neither of these girls are quite what they seem. But can they truly close the culture gap that yawns between them?

One weakness of Nakashima's script is that it underplays this gap. Instead of warily pacing on either side of it, as they would in a real high school, the two girls quickly, if tentatively, bridge it (albeit with a few head butts along the way from Ichiko).

The chemistry between super-idol Fukada as Momoko and supermodel (since turned rocker) Tsuchiya as Ichiko is genuine enough, though. Also, instead of condescending to their extreme characters, as proper idols should, Fukada and Tsuchiya throw themselves totally into their roles, while displaying, especially in Fukada's case, hitherto unknown comic talents.

Having seen "Shimotsuma Monogatari" and the similarly frothy but smartly entertaining "Cutie Honey," I'm wondering if we're on the verge of a trend. Instead of vengeful spirits in videotapes (a la "The Ring"), maybe the next big thing from Japan to assault the world will be quirky loner girls with devastating punches -- and a thing for pink.



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