Review: ‘Leaving’

Director Masato Harada brings a disarmingly light touch to the dark subject of teen prostitution in "Leaving." Laced with observations about a society of feverish consumerism and cosmetic obsessions, this upbeat, hip-looking youth film is structurally messy at times, but could see some specialized theatrical play.

Director Masato Harada brings a disarmingly light touch to the dark subject of teen prostitution in “Leaving.” Exposing a generation of material girls without morals or values, but with a curiously touching loyalty within their own ranks, the film centers on three Japanese high school hookers who use the demand for nubile flesh to finance their affluent lifestyles and expensive shopping careers. Laced with observations about a society of feverish consumerism and cosmetic obsessions, this upbeat, hip-looking youth film is structurally messy at times, but could see some specialized theatrical play.

The growing phenomenon of high school “ko gals” (call girls, in the Nipponized English slang that resembles a Japanese version of Valley Girl-speak) is part of a booming teen-sex industry built around Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. This includes telephone-sex clubs, adolescent soft-core porn videos and porn stores where everything from freshly worn schoolgirls’ panties to bottled housewives’ urine is bought and sold.

Against this background, a trio of main characters are introduced and followed over the course of one long, eventful night. These are Jonko (Hitomi Sato), who manages a small ko-gal operation on her cell phone between classes; her up-for-anything classmate Raku (Yasue Sato); and Lisa (Yukiko Okamoto), who grew up in New York and is due to fly back there the next morning.

With limited time to boost her cash supply, Lisa sells a stash of used underwear to a Shibuya store, then takes part in a video shoot. Raku meanwhile accompanies cocky Maru (Shin Yazawa) to have an abortion. Unruffled by the experience, Maru goes almost directly to a date with a john, who turns out to be yakuza honcho Oshima (Koji Yakusho).

Inclined to be compassionate due to his school-age daughter, Oshima warns the now-nervous girl to stop cutting in on yakuza business and come work for him, prompting Jonko to step in and negotiate.

Events take a bad turn at the video shoot when a street gang busts in and steals Lisa’s savings. But she forms an instant bond with fellow video starlet Raku, who enlists Jonko’s help in amassing some fast bucks in time for Lisa to make her flight.

Showing a casual contempt for their johns, they use a stun gun to incapacitate a timid businessman and make off with his cash. But when they try the same tactics on some yakuza slime, Oshima hears of it, causing him to step up his warning policy and bringing a more melancholy mood to the film.

The story’s violent and sordid elements are treated unemphatically. As a result, the film functions foremost as a lighthearted tale of adolescent female friendship and as a portrait of a new breed of aggressively independent, sexually confident young women with lots of attitude.

The coolest beauties in school, these smart, fearless girls couldn’t be further from traditional notions of Japanese feminine submissiveness, and are fully willing to exploit the weaknesses of older generations. The fact that most will step out of the fast lane for more conservative lives before they hit 20 is made quietly implicit.

The script’s take on society’s ills is not always so unobtrusive, however. The idealistic character of Lisa is a little forcibly used to introduce a shred of moral conscience, level-headedness and caution. One scene in which she berates a john who confesses to his sexually exploitative, war-criminal past is especially an eyebrow-raiser.

But despite its occasionally labored social agenda and some disordered plot elaboration, the film remains on track, thanks to its appealing cast, who give their mistress-of-the-universe characters just enough fragile elements to make them surprisingly likable.

Shot in a freewheeling, hand-held style and scored with lively doses of Japanese pop, “Leaving” has the energy and exuberance of a Hollywood teen pic.

Leaving

Japan

Production

A Shochiku Co. presentation. (International sales: Shochiku, Tokyo.) Produced by Masakatsu Suzuki. Co-producer, Hilo Izumi. Directed, written by Masato Harada.

Crew

Camera (color), Yoshitaka Sakamoto; editor, Hirohide Abe; music, Masahiro Kawasaki; art direction, Hiroshi Maruyama; sound (Dolby), Jun Nakamura. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Main Program), Feb. 6, 1998. Running time: 110 min.

With

Jonko - Hitomi Sato Raku - Yasue Sato Lisa - Yukiko Okamoto Sap - Jun Murakami Maru - Shin Yazawa Saki - Kaori Momoi Oshima - Koji Yakusho
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