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JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE Delivers a Funky Feminist Fairytale (Fantasia Review)

Blending magic realism, pop art moxie, and humane storytelling, director Daigo Matsui delivers a dreamy feminist critique of modern Japanese culture with the Fantasia International Film Festival selection Japanese Girls Never Die.

Based on a 2013 novel by Mariko Yamauchi called Haruko Azumi is Missing, Japanese Girls Never Die follows two simultaneously told stories of young women doomed to heartbreak. At 27, demure office worker Haruko (Yû Aoi) is on the brink of being considered a spinster. Her male co-workers casually sexually harass her, suggesting she be more flirtatious, wear skirts, and find a man before she’s too old to bear children. So when a former classmate takes the faintest interest in her, Haruko pins her hopes to him, earnestly trying to squeeze happiness out of dismal booty calls. However, before we know much about Haruko, the non-linear narrative warns us she will go missing.


The story of 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata) picks up with Haruko mysteriously gone, her only mark on their Japanese town an overlooked “missing persons” poster. That is until a pair of reckless young men, Manabu (Shôno Hayama) and Yukio (Taiga), turn her picture into a graffiti stencil, splashing her forlorn face across walls, bridges, and post office boxes, and sparking a sensation of speculation about the subject, the meaning, and the mysterious artists. Aina is their third wheel, a giddy and girly extrovert who giggles loudly, skips, flirts, fucks, and is always adorned with sparkles and bright, bubbly colors. She thinks she’s dating Yukio, but suffers a cruel reality check when he essentially passes her off to his pal while seeking out a younger girl to share his bed.


Japanese Girls Never Die offers a stinging critique of Japanese culture through revealing the lives of these two very different girls, who can’t seem to escape being treated like things easily discarded. It doesn’t matter how forgiving you are, how enthusiastic, how ready to love and be loved. Men and boys both still act as if there’s an endless sea of pretty young things lining up for their attention, whether it’s Haruko’s misogynistic office mates drooling a pretty new hire, or a pair of reckless graffiti artists passing off Aina with all the casualness of passing a joint. And having no goal beyond fame, Manabu and Yukio yowl and cackle with glee that the missing girl can be so easily transformed into a seemingly political symbol provocative enough to draw attention. Even the assumption that Haruko is dead earns her no respect, no decency.

Matsui lyrically weaves together Haruko and Anai’s tales of tragedy, revealing a cage of expectations from which no girl could seem to escape. But then a dreamy thread about a vicious band of high school girls who attack lone men at night creates an unexpected loophole for release. Wearing the school girl uniforms of knee socks, pleated skirts, button down blouses, and blazers that have long been fetishized for the male gaze, these wild children tear through the night, cartwheeling, giggling, and then roundhouse kicking random men in the teeth. Their refusal to be ogled is revolutionary. News reports warn men to follow police advice, and never walk alone at night. It’s tenacious table-turning that’s as shocking and exhilarating as tasting blood in your mouth. Accented with pink hoodies and hair accessories, these girls are adorable and ruthless, imagining a world where they won’t be subjected to the tired sexism of their elders. They riot and revel, scaring and enticing both Haruko and Anai. But there’s something untouchable about them, like they’re not real girls, but vengeance sprites born from the collective frustration of Japanese women forced to play a game in which they can never win.


Yet at Anai’s lowest point, it’s not this subversive girl gang that plays savior, but a vision of slightly smiling Haruko. In a dreamy and poignant scene, the missing girl appears like a guardian angel, assuring Anai that she does live, because if every girl on a missing person poster weren’t off somewhere have a great time, “it would be too unfair.” In this riveting moment of surreal sisterhood, Haruko as a symbol is reclaimed in a small but important victory for both heroines.

Bounding forward and back in time and to and fro from wannabe wives to wild girls, Japanese Girls Never Die is a bit perplexing. But even the moments where I scrambled to make sense of its jumbled time jumps felt masterfully designed, forcing me to share in the anxiety fluttering in the hearts of its heroines. While they scrape together the tiniest signs of affection trying to piece together a puzzle of love, I was grasping at visual cues to make sense of how their stories interlock. Piece by piece it all comes together. Matsui has constructed a story that is charged with emotion, rich in its understanding of female experience, visually vibrant, and genuinely politically provocative. Watching it, I found Japanese Girls Never Die exhilarating and dizzying. But its greatest rewards have come in the hours and days since, where my mind lingers on its unrepentant girly imagery, my heart thumps for its lost girls, and my thoughts tangle again and again over its haunting yet hopeful message of female empowerment and revolt.

4 out of 5 burritos. 


Images: Phantom Film 

Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews here. Follow her on Twitter! 

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