J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Kadokawa at Japan Society: Sailor Suit and Machine Gun

American publishers are still trying to catch up with Kadokawa. In the late 1970s, media mogul Haruki Kadokawa started a film production division and began cranking out hit after hit, based on his publishing properties. So, how’s Random House Studio doing? Oh right, sold to Freemantle Media. For Hiroko Yakushimaru, they developed one of the first and arguably still most successful vehicles for a Japanese Idol. It would spawn two television series (decades apart) and a sequel re-boot this year. It doesn’t have the cult following in America of other violent pop culture phenomena, but it is hard to miss its lasting influence of Japanese cinema when Shinji Sōmai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (trailer here) screens as the opener of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.

Izumi Hoshi looks fragile, but she is surprisingly tough. She was already somewhat delinquent, even before she inherited control of her great-uncle’s Yakuza gang. Technically, he had named his nephew as his successor, but before the surviving Medaka gang members can find him, the traveling salesman dies in an accident. Logically, leadership of the gang then falls to Hoshi, as his rightful heir. Rather bizarrely, Hoshi also inherits Mayumi Sandaiji, her father’s lover, whom she never met. You can bet she has a secret or two.

Understandably, Hoshi tries to beg off leading the Medaka gang, but when she learns the remaining core group will launch a suicide attack against their rivals if forced to disband, she accepts her new position. Of course, her new fellow clan leaders do not take her seriously. They assume they can finish off Medaka at their leisure, but there is a limit to the disrespect and condescension Hoshi will take.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun takes its title and iconic poster image from the climatic shootout that is basically what it sounds like, but the film in toto is far moodier and more ambiguous than the Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura movies it subsequently inspired. Hoshi is not a cartoon. She is a confused kid, who quite logically grabs onto the support system being offered after the death of her father, her only family and sole support.

Yakushimaru is terrific as Hoshi evolving from slightly jaded but largely naïve kid into full-fledged gangster and finally we’re not really sure what. She also plays some powerful scenes with Yuki Kazamatsuri as Sandaiji, the profoundly damaged femme fatale.

There is something appealingly grungy about SS and MG. This is not a slick video-game-style gore fest. It is street-wise and world-weary, but with a sugary pop idol soundtrack. Nor does it glamorize the violence it inexorably leads up to (despite spawning the catch-word “kaikan” with Hoshi’s big gun-down). Innocence is lost in Sōmai’s film—and it’s a darned shame, but life goes on. Highly recommended for students and connoisseurs of misunderstood cult cinema, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun screens this Tuesday (11/8) at Japan Society as the launch of their Kadokawa series—and it is guaranteed to make happier viewing than anything on television that depressing night.

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