The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション, Junpei Matsumoto, 2017)

Perfect Revolution posterIf there is one group consistently underrepresented in cinema, it surely those living with disability. Even the few films which feature disabled protagonists often focus solely on the nature of their conditions, emphasising their suffering or medical treatment at the expense of telling the story of their lives. Junpei Matsumoto’s Perfect Revolution (パーフェクト・レボリューション) which draws inspiration from the real life experiences of Yoshihiko Kumashino – a Japanese man born with cerebral palsy who operates a not for profit organisation promoting awareness of sexual needs among the disabled community, makes a criticism of the aforementioned approach a central pillar of its narrative. Unlike many on-screen depictions of disabled people, Perfect Revolution attempts to reflect the normality of life with a disability whilst never shying away from some of the difficulties and the often hostile attitude from an undereducated society.

Kumashiro (Lily Franky), a man in his mid-40s, was born with cerebral palsy and has been using a wheelchair for most of his life. An activist for disabled rights, he’s written a book about his experiences and is keen to address the often taboo subject of sexuality among disabled people. Kumashiro has long since given up on the idea of romance or of forming a “normal” relationship leading to marriage and children but his life changes when a strange pink-haired woman barges into his book signing and demands to know why he’s always talking about sex but never about love. Kumashiro thinks about her question and answers fairly (if not quite honestly as he later reveals) that he doesn’t yet know what love is but is just one of many hoping to find out. This impresses the woman who approaches him afterwards and then refuses to leave him alone. Ryoko (Nana Seino), asking to be known as “Mitsu” (which means “honey” in Japanese – a nice paring with “Kuma” which means “bear”), suddenly declares she’s fallen in love with Kumashiro, whom she nicknames Kumapi.

The elephant in the room is that there is clearly something a little different about Mitsu whose brash, loud manner runs from childishly endearing to worryingly reckless. Mitsu is a sex worker at a “soapland” (a brothel disguised as a bathhouse in which the customer is “washed” by an employee) and sees nothing particularly wrong in her choice of occupation though recognises that other people look down on her because of it – something which she doesn’t quite understand and is constantly exasperated by. Perhaps offensively, she sees her own position as a woman (and a sex worker) as akin to being “disabled” in the kind of social stigma she faces but does not identify as being disabled in terms of her undefined mental health problems beyond accepting that she is “different” and has not been able to integrate into “regular” society. Nevertheless, she believes herself to be at one with Kumashiro in his struggle and is determined to foster the “perfect revolution” with him to bring about true happiness for everyone everywhere.

Thankfully Kumashiro is surrounded by supportive friends and family who are keen to help him manage on his own rather than trying to run his life for him but he does regularly encounter less sympathetic people from a drunken couple who decide to lay into him in a restaurant to a well meaning religious woman who runs after Kumashiro to tell him how “inspired” she feels just looking at him before trying to thrust money into his purse. Mitsu’s problems are less immediately obvious but her loud, volatile behaviour is also a problem for many in conformist Japan as is her straightforwardness and inability to understand the rules of her society. Mitsu has no one to look after her save a fortune teller (Kimiko Yo) who has become a surrogate mother figure, but it is a problem that no one has thought to talk to her about seeing a doctor even when her behaviour turns violent or veers towards self-harm.

Despite their struggles to be seen as distinct individuals, both Kumashiro and Mitsu are often reduced simply to their respective “differences”. Kumashiro does a lot of publicity for his book but is exasperated by well-meaning photographers who ask, tentatively, if they can photograph just his hands – literally reducing him to his disability. An “inspirational” TV documentary strand is also interested in interviewing Kumashiro and Mitsu, but only because of the “unusual” quality of their relationship. It quickly becomes apparent to Kumashiro that the documentarians aren’t interested in documenting his life so much as constructing a narrative around “damaged” outsiders that viewers can feel sorry for. Fearing that Kumashiro looks too cheerful, the producers ask him to remove his makeup and colourful clothing whilst explaining to Mitsu that they don’t want her to talk about sex work in a positive manner and would prefer it if she used a more acceptable euphemism rather than calling it what it is. Mitsu doesn’t realise she’s been had, but Kumashiro leaves the shoot feeling humiliated and annoyed.

Matsumoto does his best to present the issues sensitively, never patronising either Kumashiro or Mitsu but depicting them as real people with real faults just living their lives like everybody else. Neatly avoiding the classic Hollywood, happy ever after ending he emphases that there is still a long way to go but it is unfortunate that Mitsu’s situation is treated more lightly than it deserves and that her eventual desire to get treatment is undermined by the film’s liberated ending which is, nevertheless, inspirational as Kumashiro and Mitsu both commit themselves to the “perfect revolution” of a better, happier future both for themselves and for all mankind.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)