Japanese girls never die, but their options for living within the strictly gendered, codified confines of contemporary Japanese society don’t seem to offer much of an alternative in Daigo Matsui’s splashy, erratic, provocative, and rather brilliant post-modern drama. One of two homegrown titles playing in competition at the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival, it provides a fascinating counterpoint to the dreamy classicist ethereality of Kiki Sugino’s ghost story “Snow Woman,” but while its rhythms may be more punkishly anarchic, its intentions are, if anything, more serious.
“Japanese Girls Never Die,” AKA “Haruko Azumi Is Missing,” amounts to a patchwork protest against the subjugation and exploitation of women living within a misogynistic culture, but the audacious approach to chronology, the welter of subplots, subthemes, side characters, and surrealist interludes means it’s a lot less eat-your-vegetables than that may suggest. And within all that sound and fury (which signifies quite a lot) there is even room for a touchingly forthright central performance from Yû Aoi.
Based on a 2013 novel by Mariko Yamauchi, the film’s main storyline concerns the 27-year-old, unmarried Haruko (Yû Aoi), who works a joyless job in a small office, lives at home with her parents and is unrequitedly in love with Soga (Huey Ishizaki), the weirdo neighbor with whom she used to play as a child. But even before we discover any of this about her, we know one thing: She will disappear. Within the bewilderingly chopped-up series of flash-forward fragments that opens the movie, we’ve already seen the film’s central image: the graphic stencil version of Haruko’s ‘Missing’ poster, and it infuses all the scenes of her daily life with a kind of dread, especially because we come to care for her so instantaneously.
Unfolding alongside Haruko’s pre-disappearance story is a later plotline. Young, aspiring graffiti artists Manabu (Shôno Hayama) and Yukio (Taiga) empty-headedly hit on the idea of replicating Haruko’s poster all over town, aided by Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a needy, over-accessorized 20-year-old nail-art beautician with a blinged-up smartphone and a dashboard full of plush toys. Yukio is casually stringing Aina along (and equally casually “offers” her to Manabu) because “she’s pretty and she puts out,” before he loses interest in her for a younger model; Aina thinks they’re in a relationship. In the background of both these strands there’s a third: A gang of schoolgirls prowls the streets and viciously attacks passing men, causing radio news reports to caution male listeners against walking home alone at night.
Matsui’s approach feels chaotic at first, but retrospectively it’s apparent that the pick ‘n’ mix shifts between storylines, timelines, and registers of real and imaginary are anything but random. Indeed, the fact that it’s difficult to locate the exact pressure points where reality becomes wish-fulfillment fantasy is part of the film’s strength, and were it delivered in a more linear manner, it might not achieve the same resonance.
Yet even the most straightforwardly told parts of the story are critical to the point of subversive about many aspects of modern Japanese culture. Haruko’s home life, with three generations living under the same small roof, is typical, but this is not Ozu, and its dismal downside is highlighted as Haruko’s mother spends all her time venting vocal frustration at her grandmother’s clumsy senility. At work, Haruko faces the breathtakingly entitled sexism of her two male co-workers (who earn more than seven times her salary), not just in relation to herself but to her female colleague whom, as an unmarried woman of 37, they blame for everything from Japan’s negative population growth to the high tax rate.
Yukio and Manabu’s storyline as the graffiti team “Kilroy” takes a detour into art-world satire — because in the post-Warhol world of today, and especially in faddish, consumerist, disposable cultures, what is the difference between a meme and a movement? And the most overtly fantastical, manga-inspired element — the schoolgirl gang whose exploits Matsui shoots with frenzied, Sion Sono-style glee, even incorporating a pretty great animated section by Ryo Hirano — can be read as explicitly rebelling against the fetishized, sexualized image of the Japanese schoolgirl that the manga tradition is so instrumental in perpetuating.
Using such pop-culture tropes to critique the ways in which Japanese society fails its women means that to a certain extent Matsui gets to have his cake and eat it. But it also means that “Japanese Girls Never Die” has a shot at an international audience (certainly on the festival circuit) in parts of the world where there might exist the tendency to romanticize the day-glo excesses of the “Harajuku girl” phenomenon, for example, without considering the ageism and sexism of which it’s born.
Investigating the power and the limitations of symbolism (Haruko’s face comes to stand for something other than the Haruko we know), delivering a feminist punch-to-the-nethers, and working as a sincere character portrait too, Matsui’s film is a compelling stew of moods: angry, whimsical, hopeful but overarchingly sad. It’s bursting with ideas, some less effectively explored than others, and it goes through one too many contortions by its over-explained finale. But none of that matters much beside the lasting impression it leaves, which despite the film’s brazenness, is subtle: a little ache in the heart for all the disappeared girls and women — not just the ones whose bright, blank faces stare out from dog-eared posters, but those forced into a kind of invisibility by a society in which they have little value when they are not of interest to men. In the end, this vibrant, energetic film simultaneously manages to be pop-art, edgy social critique, and a strangely moving prayer for all the gone girls.