Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013:

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983)

Little Girl Who Conquered TImeThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a perennial favourite in its native Japan. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original novel was first published back in 1967 giving rise to a host of multimedia incarnations right up to the present day with Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 animated film of the same name which is actually a kind of sequel to Tsutsui’s story. Arguably among the best known, or at least the best loved to a generation of fans, is Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1983 movie The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo) which is, once again, a Kadokawa teen idol flick complete with a music video end credits sequence.

As in the novel, the story centres around regular high school girl Kazuko Yoshiyama (Tomoyo Harada). She has two extremely close male friends (generally a recipe for disaster, or at least for melodrama but this is not that kind of story) – Horikawa and Fukamachi, and one Saturday while all three are charged with cleaning up the schoolroom, Kazuko ventures into the science lab where she sees a beaker on the floor emitting thick white smoke which smells strongly of lavender causing her to pass out. Everyone seems to think it’s either hunger, anaemia, or that old favourite “woman’s troubles” but from this day on Kazuko’s life begins to change. The same day repeats itself over and over again with minor differences and Kazuko also begins to experience multilayered dreams in which her friends are in some kind of peril.

Tsutsui’s original novel was a Kadokawa Shoten property (though first published 15 years previously) which made it a natural fit for the Kadokawa effect so when legendary idol master Haruki Kadokawa found an idol he was particularly taken with in Tomoyo Harada the stars aligned. Obayashi set the story in his own hometown, the pleasantly old fashioned port village of Onomichi, which adds a nicely personal feel to his take on the original story. Although The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is an adaptation of a classic novel, many of Obayashi’s regular concerns are present from the wistful tone to the transience of emotion and the importance of memory.

Kazuko is another of Obayashi’s young women at a crossroads as she finds herself wondering what to do with the rest of her life. The original timeline seems to point to a romance and possibly a life of pleasant, if dull, domesticity with one of her best friends but with this time travelling intrusion everything diverges. Though assured that she will not remember most of the strange events that have been happening to her, something of her adventures seems to have stuck in Kazuko’s mind even if she couldn’t quite say why. Much to the consternation of her mother, Kazuko’s purpose in life begins to lean to towards the scientific rather than the romantic, almost as if she’s waiting for the return of someone whom she has no recollection of having met.

Obayashi once again uses conflicting colour schemes to anchor his story. Beginning with black and white as Kazuko has her first encounter with someone she’s known all her life under the brightly shining stars, he gradually re-introduces us to the “real” world through sporadically adding colour during her bus ride home to her small town which does have a noticeably more old fashioned aesthetic when compared to Tokyo set features of the era. The effects are highly stylised and very much of their time including the celebrated time travel sequence which has Kazuko framed by a neon blue halo. The most touching sequence occurs near the end of the film in which Kazuko crosses paths with a familiar face that she doesn’t quite recognise, the camera perspective actively changes physically pulling us away from the encounter until Kazuko turns around and walks away in the opposite direction and into yet another empty corridor.

Tomoyo Harada developed into a fine actress with a long standing and successful career in both television and feature films as well as releasing a number of full length albums. As is usual with this kind of film she also sings the theme tune which has the same title as the movie though in an unusual movie Obayashi includes a music video retelling of the events of the film over the end credits featuring all of the cast helping Harada to perform the song with silly grins on their faces all the way through. Harada proves herself much more adept at convincingly carrying a feature length movie than some of her fellow idols but the same cannot be said for many of her co-stars though she is well backed up by established adult cast members including Ittoku Kishibe as Kazuko’s romantically distressed teacher.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is first and foremost a Kadokawa idol movie and has all the hallmarks of this short lived though extremely successful genre. Necessarily very much of its time, the film has taken on an additional layer of nostalgic charm on top of that which has been deliberated injected into it. Nevertheless, in keeping with Obayashi’s other work The Little Girl Who Conquered Time has a melancholic, wistful tone which is sentimental at times but, crucially, always sincere.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the famous music video for the title song (which is of course sung by Tomoyo Harada herself). English Subtitles!

W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, Shinichiro Sawai, 1984)

W's TragedyHiroko Yakushimaru was one of the biggest idols of the 1980s. After starring in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, she went on to become one of Kadokawa’s tentpole stars in vehicles such as Detective Story and Main Theme but she hit her artistic stride in 1984’s W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, W no Higeki) which earned her her first Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress. Inspired by the 1982 novel of the same name by Shizuko Natsuki (translated into English under the title Murder at Mt. Fuji), Sawai’s film radically diverges from its source material as the central murder mystery takes place on stage but eerily begins to mirror real life events.

Shizuka Mita (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is an aspiring young actress desperate to find her place in the spotlight. After spending the night with her teacher, she wanders home through a park and begins monologuing her life on the stage of an outdoor amphitheatre. Unbeknownst to her, a young man was sleeping on one of the rear benches and wakes up to applaud her performance. Despite her hostility towards him, Akio perseveres in getting Shizuka’s attention and the two eventually develop a tentative relationship.

Shizuka’s acting school offers its pupils the opportunity to star in a full scale production with established stars of the stage as part of their training and this year’s play is based on the recent novel, W’s Tragedy, which centres around a murder in an aristocratic family. Shikuza is desperate to win the leading role of Mako who claims to have murdered her grandfather after he tried to assault her. Losing out in the original auditions process but winning a small role which also comes with some backstage craft experience, Shizuka begins to lose heart. However, after building up a relationship with the star actress in the show, Shizuka is offered the opportunity to displace her rival through underhanded means but just how far is she willing to go for stardom and what will it all mean if and when she gets it?

Taking its cues from All About Eve, W’s Tragedy, reconfigured as a vehicle for Yakushimaru, becomes more about dualities as Shizuka effectively splits into two different “selves” – the young and innocent girl dreaming of a life on the stage, and the insecure, ambitious student willing to sacrifice anything to get there. Though clearly conflicted, Shizuka easily gives in to dubious suggestions that will earn her what she wants though not perhaps in the way that she wanted it. Her rival is shown to be a very competent actress who has also sacrificed parts of herself to attain the position that Shizuka so covets though it’s the older actress, Sho, who is the first to lament the fate of the displaced former leading lady even if she adopts a casualty of war ethos about the whole entrprise.

Shizuka gives the best performance of her life at a press conference held when she replaces the other actress in the show as she lies through her teeth to reinforce the fake story she and Sho have concocted together to their mutual benefit. Taking the brunt of a scandal just as Mako tries to take responsibility for a crime in the play, Shizuka becomes rather than performs an entirely different persona as she gives a heartfelt account of a passionate love affair with a married man that belongs to someone else entirely. Taken to task by Akio who doesn’t know the story is fake but has come to despise this manipulative side of the acting profession, Shizuka begins to wonder who she really is underneath all of the lies, scheming, and performance.

Though the directing style is generally straightforward and in keeping with Kadokawa’s mainstream idol movies of the time, Sawai adds in a few interesting flourishes which often pay homage to similarly themed Western movies such as an overtly All About Eve moment with Shizuoka taking to the stage and reciting the lead role when she thinks no one’s looking. A strange shot near the end takes place during the play but has been constructed entirely for our benefit as Shizuka looks at her reflection on a pane of glass. The audience would not be able to pick up on this ghostly effect of the two Shizukas – the stage persona and the shade of the innocent girl dreaming of the spotlight, but the effect itself is a perfect evocation of the ever present theme of duality.

Very much of its time and bearing most of the hallmarks of the classic Kadokawa idol movie, W’s Tragedy is, in many ways, the evocation of another era. However, it does provide a plum leading role for its star and an interesting meditation on the nature of acting as a profession as well as the double standards and hypocritical judgements inherent to the running of the entertainment industry.  Though less explosive than the later Perfect Blue with which it shares a few common themes, W’s Tragedy provides another set of mirrors into the nature of stardom, identity, and the price of success.


Unsubbed trailer (look out for a brief cameo from the late Yukio Ninagawa):

And here’s a clip of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 30 year anniversary concert back in 2013:

His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

His Motorcycle Her IslandLike many directors during the 1980s, Nobuhiko Obayashi was unable to resist the lure of a Kadokawa teen movie but His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Kare no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima) is a typically strange 1950s throwback with its tale of motorcycle loving youngsters and their ennui filled days. Switching between black and white and colour, Obayashi paints a picture of a young man trapped in an eternal summer from which he has no desire to escape.

Ko (Riki Takeuchi) tells us that he’s an unusual guy because most people dream in colour but all of his dreams are in monochrome. He’s a student and dispatch rider overly attached to his admittedly very handsome Kawasaki motorbike. After getting beaten up by his boss due to deflowering the guy’s sister and then breaking her heart, Ko skips town for the open road, just him and his bike. However, he repeatedly runs into the same mysterious girl who lives on an equally mysterious island and develops a deep seated need for her, secondary only to that for his bike. Miyo (Kiwako Harada) has also taken a liking to the Kawasaki and is intent on getting her full motorcycle license. Her growing obsession with the bike threatens to become an all consuming need driving a wedge between the two young lovers.

Obayashi begins in a black and white sequence window boxed in the centre of the screen before expanding to 4:3 when Ko has his fight with his boss and only hits 16:9 for the first colour scene which sees Ko taking off on his beloved bike. He told us that his dreams are in black and white but the film seems to disagree with him, segueing into various gradated colour schemes as Ko narrates his melancholy tale of tragic lost love. Ko is not necessarily a very reliable narrator in any case, but in each instance the on screen action is always coloured by the recollections of the older man who offers his voice over commentary.

Like many Obayashi films, the overriding feeling is one of melancholy mixed with a youthful apathy.  This is a story about modern young people, but refracted through rebellious ‘50s movies from Rebel Without a Cause to The Wild One and a hundred others inbetween. Ko is a university student (of what we don’t know) but seems to have no great ambitions. He takes things as he finds them and his only passion is the bike itself. When he first meets Miyo and she asks him where he’s going, he simply replies that he’s “looking for the wind” – a motif which recurs throughout the film.

Later on when he arrives at Miyo’s island, it takes on an opposing symbolism to his bike. Just as Miyo can’t get enough of the Kawasaki, Ko is originally attracted to the island much more than to the girl. It’s not quite a coincidence that each time he visits there it’s the Bon festival where the dead are temporarily allowed to return to the world of the living. Later he says that Miyo wasn’t just a girl but an island, and he wan’t just a boy but a bike, and together the two of them became the wind. They became one entity, inseparable one from the other. Finally the esoteric colour scheme begins to make sense, we’ve been watching a ghost story all along. This island is an unreal place, existing only inside Ko’s memory where Miyo waits for him with a full tank of gas.

Once again youth is seen as a brief yet unforgettable period filled with longing and regret. The older man is forever trapped by this one glorious summer, a place to which he can never return but neither can he escape. The nihilistic tone and voice over narration have an edge of the French New Wave but ‘50s American cinema of alienation seems closer to Obayashi’s intentions. An elliptical and strange tale of tragic love retold as a ghost story, filled with phantoms of memory and landscapes coloured by dream and emotion, His Motorbike, Her Island is another characteristically offbeat effort from Obayashi which once again embraces the aimlessness of youth and age’s regret.


Unsubtitled trailer – goes through to a video of Kiwako Harada singing the title song, in case you were in any doubt what this movie is for.

Or, here is the film’s opening (which also features the title song)