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Kamikaze Girls isn’t an unlikable film, but nearly everything I like about it is done better in other films. The wild stylistic flourishes are straight out of House or the work of Sion Sono. The cartoonish costumes and hairstyles are part of a more coherent whole in Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney. And as for the central relationship, well, there are movies about actual lesbians to watch. This film doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but I wish the things it did right hadn’t been outdone by films that came both before and after it.
The film depicts the unlikely friendship between the Rococo-obsessed, self-centered Momoko (all frilly dresses and lace sunbrellas) and the thuggish, bruising “Yanki” biker Ichiko (more into long leather trenchcoats and bootleg Versace). I say “unlikely” because Kamikaze Girls takes for granted their mutual fascination and attraction. We know quite a bit about these characters’ backstories, but this does little to explain what it is they actually like about each other.
The film’s main problem is that the answer is obvious: they’re gay! This has the exact structure of every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, the girls have an instant chemistry and bond they can’t explain, there’s a meet-cute and a breakup and they get back together for a happy ending, it’s all right there. But they can’t be explicitly gay, because this film was made in 2004. They have to hide behind subtext and coding, even if that subtext and coding is so transparent as to be hilariously ineffective.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with queer coding. Throughout history it’s been the only way to openly express queerness in art without fear of reprisal. I’m happy to accept the queerness of certain works or characters based entirely on subtext and metaphor. My frustration with Kamikaze Girls arises because, as I said, it is so blatantly a queer love story and yet it still pulls back. The film is terrified to take that one extra step. A cynical appraisal would say that it slathers itself in style and artifice to create an ironic distance from the heart of its story. I’m not a cynical person or a cynical critic, but it’s hard for me to come away from this film at all charmed by its relentlessly idiosyncratic aesthetic when that aesthetic appears to be masking something rather than expressing it.
Take for example Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, which I mentioned earlier. There’s lesbian subtext aplenty in that film, and it’s also a runaway train of visual affectation. The difference (besides Obayashi being a better director than Kamikaze Girls’ Tetsuya Nakashima) is that House’s aesthetic choices enrich and explore its subtext, bringing it to the fore in ways both campy and genuinely tragic. House doesn’t run away from the way its characters are coded. That’s the story it’s telling, on purpose. All of Kamikaze Girls’ bizarre effects, all its disorienting editing, its wacky characters, its animated sequences; all of it serves to distract and obfuscate, to emotionally detach from its narrative core. It just doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile.
Now, none of this is to say that I think it’s a bad film. I more or less liked it! I can certainly see why someone would be infatuated with it. Maybe one day I’ll revisit Kamikaze Girls and find more to appreciate about it. For now, though, I find it a fitfully entertaining, mostly frustrating experience.