The Dark Maidens 暗黒女子 Dir: Saiji Yakumo (2017)

The Dark Maidens    The Dark Maidens Film Poster

暗黒女子 Ankoku Joshi

Running Time: 105 mins.

Release Date: April 01st, 2017

Director: Saiji Yakumo

Writer: Mari Okada (Screenplay), Rikako Akiyoshi (Original Novel),

Starring: Fumika Shimizu, Marie Iitoyo, Yudai Chiba, Yuna Taira, Nana Seino, Tina Tamashiro, Riria Kojima.

Website IMDB

You can never truly know another person. This well-worn adage applies really well to this amusing adaptation of Rikako Akiyoshi’s novel where the pristine surface presented by places and people hide the ugliest of human behaviour.

Seibo Maria Girls High School is where the daughters of the elite are sent to be educated. It’s a deliberately hyper-idealised place as shot in this film with a neatly mown front lawn that has flowerbeds and tree groves, clean and orderly and spacious corridors and classrooms with marble and parquet flooring that all shine. The teachers are handsome young men and the principal is a handsome older man while the student body is composed of perky and cute school girls who all sigh with romance, giggle over gossip, and smile with pleasure over living in the supposed prime of their lives in the school, their cocoon.

Cracks appear in the image when Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo), the daughter of the school’s administrator, falls off the rooftop and lands in a flowerbed (even Itsumi’s death is beautiful, shot in slow-motion and not as horrific as it would be in real life). Rumours fly around the school. Was it an accident, suicide, or possibly murder? The only clue is that she was holding a lily of the valley in her hand and there’s suspicion that someone in the literature club killed Itsumi. The new president of the club, Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu), holds a meeting and asks each member to read out a story they have composed about the events leading up to Itsumi’s death. Each story lasts around ten minutes and is told in one long, uninterrupted flashback. As the stories are told, they eat yaminabe Sayuri has cooked from their favourite ingredients in the fridge little knowing that this formal meeting will unmask more than just the killer…

Of course, everyone has something to hide. This being a Catholic girls school, there are many types of behaviour which are super illegal and it runs the whole gamut of sin from sex outside of marriage to murder and the film delights in showing it all on screen as wannabe writer Shiyo Takaoka (Nana Seino), scholarship student Mirei Nitani (Yuna Taira), international student Diana Decheba (Tina Tamashiro), and talented cook Akane Kominami (Riria Kojima) recite their works and try to label each other the real killer. Guilt and shame as a force of motivation and control show up here and there’s a lot to go around as secrets are revealed in the club.

As befits the beauty of the school, the literature club room, or bungaku salon as the girls call it, is an idealised place full of luxurious antique furniture that seems to have come from some fin de siecle decadent’s home and there’s even a kitchen attached! This acts as a hub for the narrative to go back to, an interesting focal point for the narrative frame that allows the vignettes to play out one at a time and the tension to rise as the characters tell their stories, each of which cover the same ground but from a different perspective.

In terms of narrative execution, the same scenes play out with partial narration from the different storytellers. The actors portray their characters differently in each flashback and their differing behaviour reflects the relationships as viewed by the person (and their heightened teen imagination) telling the tale. Diana, a character who is a non-entity in one person’s story becomes a saint loyal to Itsumi in her own and an actual Lamia (vampiric creature) who shoots poisonous glances and snarls as she stabs voodoo dolls in another person’s tale. A studious girl with a serious countenance becomes a money-grabbing prostitute with a lascivious grin and so forth. Each section is shot in a mildly different way from torrid romance to horror so the tone changes slightly.

There is enough cross-over in each story for a full picture of sin to build up as clues are laid out to link everything to the lily Itsumi held. Audiences will exercise their suspicions but the real suspense comes in seeing the reason behind Itsumi’s fall from grace and her actions. Itsumi is presented in such a saintly manner complete with harp music and a choir singing whenever she is on screen and her behaviour is idealised in every tale but as time wears on, doubts are sown about her. This is an exercise in scandal rather than mystery as we find the teens are all presenting a facade and the school houses raging passions. In this environment, Itumi’s character becomes more interesting if badly handled when all is revealed.

Sayuri who mediates the meeting and sums up each story, follows the style of the school and uses the highest form of keigo (polite language) which masks some hidden intent and the final revelations are pleasingly extreme and scandalous even if they are extremely problematic in the way certain relationships are handled. While the stories aren’t totally engaging and the acting is somewhat shallow, it does enough that the film has a natural gradual build-up into hysteria and screaming, a feeling probably generated because of the presence of newly minted live-action movie scripter Mari Okada. She is a skilled writer for anime who often trades in melodrama and light horror (think Red Garden) and the tone of the film feels similar.

In an age where women are torching all the old images of docility, the film-makers flirt with this emerging rage and rebelliousness here but that is nothing new and they rein it in at the end. The image of the school girl is exploited and fetishsised and exploded on screen but placed back in the confines of already-established archetypes and themes created by the media as order is re-established. Getting to this point is mildly amusing but ultimately the film is, while pretty, quite inessential. If you watch Shady or Confessions or The World of Kanako, you’ll get these themes in a more worthwhile film.

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