Japanese Girls Never Die
アズミ・ハルコは行方不 「Azumi Haruko wa yukue fumei」
Running Time: 100 mins.
Director: Daigo Matsui
Writer: Mariko Yamauchi (Original Novel), Misaki Setoyama (Screenplay)
Starring: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Maho Yamada, Shono Hayama, Taiga, Kanon Hanakage, Ryo Kase, Motoki Ochiai, Tomiyuki Kunihiro, Akiko Kikuchi,
In this film, Japanese girls are mad. Justifiably so if you look at reality. Despite Japan being a country on the bleeding edge of culture and cool, the way women are treated leaves a lot to be desired. Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan (I’m dating this review with a reference to him), has pledged to make Japan’s economy boom again and one of his methods is to get more women into the workplace and not just in menial positions but in leadership roles – womenomics. Rather contradictorily, he wants this whilst also trying to persuade women to boost the birthrate of a country with workplace environments that often penalise people for taking time off to look after family matters. Unfortunately, his grand plans have faltered and women still find themselves trapped in lowly positions never mind other issues such as stalkers and whatnot. Japanese Girls Never Die, based on the novel Haruko Azumi Is Missing by Misaki Setoyama, manages to tackle many issues of that women face in a bright neon blaze of righteous anger and anime-inspired visuals that will drive home the injustices that women endure.
One hot summer, cryptic graffiti, featuring information from a missing person poster begins to appear all over an anonymous suburban town. Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi) is the missing person and her melancholy face stares out at people who pass by. Who is she?
We find out moments into the film as we flashback to scenes from the woman’s everyday life.
Haruko is a normal woman who works in a dead-end office job with two misogynistic bosses who pick on her and her colleague Hiroko Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada) over their appearance, age, and marital status. The two women endure a chorus of sexist cries every day: “At 37, Hiroko is letting Japan down by not getting married and having kids!” “Haruko should dress more feminine and get a boyfriend!” Things aren’t much better at Haruko’s cramped home where she lives with her parents and senile grandmother and has a one-sided romance with the ungrateful and reclusive Yuji Soga (Huey Ishizaki). It’s a pretty miserable existence and the pressure mounts. The audience begins to dread what will happen to Haruko but getting to the point of disappearance isn’t so straight-forward!
Her story is mixed-up with that of three wannabe grafitti artists who hijack Haruko’s image and spray it around town. These artists are old schoolmates who have just turned twenty. There’s the shy and artistic Manabu (Shono Hayama), brash university kid Yukio (Taiga), and glam gal Aina (Mitsuki Takahata) who thinks she’s in a relationship with Yukio. The guys take the lead in tagging and the pretty but pretty emotionally desperate Aina tags along until she finds her own inspiration. Until this awakening, she’s only used her artistic flair for job as a nail-art technician and making her smartphone as gaudy as she can by accessorising it.
If women reaching or past their 30s get a rough time of it, newly-minted adults like Aina are judged as useful to society solely by their looks and are pressured to look for husbands or work in girly bars. Yukio uses Aina for casual sex and even offers her to Manabu when a younger woman enters his life and this causes frictions amongst the trio, especially when the art world decide to pick up the boys for a big project once their spray painted images of Haruko goes viral across the news and social media.
While this is happening, a mysterious group of high school girls run a campaign of terror where they attack random men at night and that includes the guys making Haruko’s life a misery. These incidents seem to overlap and Haruko herself gets caught up in them and they take her out of her miserable existence and romance but are they part of the reason she disappears?
Getting to the answer is a hell of a lot of fun as we run a gauntlet of hyper-aggressive kawaii high-school girls and the misogynist pigs they are railing against.
Sitting through a “message film” about how bad men are might sound a chore (and dull men might cry misandry) but not here because the film doesn’t deliver its message in a straight-forward way. Daigo Matsui has written the script, characters and dialogue so he gives it to the audience in a non-linear fashion but it all slots into place even as the narrative bounces between three strands and two different timelines. Part of this is down to having Yu Aoi’s character of Haruko and Mitsuki Takahata’s Aina act as narrative lynch-pins since they are the focal points of sexism and female resistance for the narrative. Their experiences and reactions thus control and corral every seemingly chaotic aspect into a sequence that give the audience an idea of what a drag it is to be these women. The scenes and sequences are a series of sharp strikes of semi-comedic and semi-serious moments and the narrative all the more energetic for it.
Females from different generations are on display to show the insidious effects of misogyny and gender roles – a girl of about ten who is dressed like a princess is already conditioned to see 27-year-old Haruko as past her sell-by-date, an old lady. Haruko’s 50-something mother is slowly being driven insane as she has to run a house single-handed and look after a senile old woman while her husband ignores the chaos and reads a newspaper or eats food. Then there’s Haruko’s co-worker at the office, Hiroko, the most capable person who effectively runs the place but is paid a pittance by her incompetent male bosses and forced to endure sexist comments. Both Aina and Haruko are reduced to emotionally needy. Even the romantic idea of marrying a childhood friend is torpedoed with Haruko’s one-sided romance with Yuji who turns sour and callously discards her (not that she looked fulfilled by being with him) the moment another girl enters his life much like Yukio and Aina.
If there ain’t no romance in the air and the men are no good, perhaps it’s time to disappear and make things happen for yourself. Or burn the town down as a group of rebellious schoolgirls begin to do.
The criticism of the treatment of women comes in well-detailed and believable scenes of humdrum life and relationship dramas that Haruko and Aina go through but things liven up and get fantastical (revenge-fantasy fantastical!) as mobs of girls beat up men in amusing hit-and-run attacks before retreating to their cinema den to watch animated films. Matsui co-opts anime aesthetics in these sections and pours them into the cut-up narrative to provide a counterpoint to the everyday lives of Haruko and Aina, ultimately turning art on the very men who create and consume the sexualised schoolgirl imagery and so the film passes comment on social roles and privileges and the unfairness of a woman’s place while celebrating the durability, energy, and gutsiness of women through the school girl gang fighting back and the women holding families together who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown thus bringing a very political take to what is ostensibly a serious topic.
Flipping between animation and reality, different locations, time periods, and different characters may sound like hard work but Daigo Matsui manages things effortlessly and the film benefits from this flexibility since its rhythm bounces along and turns the narrative into a rollercoaster ride. At no points confusing and at every moment engaging, it feels like everything but the final third has been perfectly weighted and set in motion to hit the screen at the right time – more time could have been given to the final sequences and resolutions but that would risk the mysterious ending being blown.
The female characters may be in positions of weakness for most of this film but they are powered by fantastic actors. Yu Aoi, as Haruko, provides a stable centre and an every-woman quality with her equanimity and natural looks while Maho Yamada brings her dry sense of humour to the role of Hiroko (and she further cements herself as my favourite actress) and also glows with self-confidence – no man’s comment will stop her going where she wants to go. Mitsuki Takahata is a complete kawaii girl but her fun and loopy personality makes her heart-breakingly sympathetic when she is mistreated by the guys. The one decent male character is a gormless police officer played by Ryo Kase who is constantly (and hilariously) chewing on food and devouring ice cream outside his kouban whilst a gender war goes on around him.
Other writers and directors may well be heavy-handed in dealing with this topic but Daigo Matsui makes this enjoyable for all and I reckon he does this whilst also awakening men to some of the things that women go through by presenting different ways of male thinking on screen – neediness and desperation for love adulation from women. callousness and ruthlessness in the way we treat relationships. We’re better when we’re selfless and doing our jobs. If you’re the type of guy who thinks he’s immune to making a mistake, just be aware of the way your brain switches its way of thinking. This film will illuminate that.
So is the title true? Do Japanese girls never die? Well, they are pretty hardcore, born survivors and patient as hell, magic even (that’s not me exoticising them, that’s the ending of the film!). I don’t really know the reality but you better treat them with respect or they’ll cut you down.