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:

700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2008)

700days-of-battleThose golden last few summers of high school have provided ample material for countless nostalgia filled Japanese comedies and 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Bokutachi to Chuzai-san no 700 Nichi Senso) is no exception. Set in a small rural town in 1979, this is an innocent story of bored teenagers letting off steam in an age before mass communications ruined everyone’s fun.

In the summer of 1979, a group of teenage high school students get their kicks pulling pranks around the neighbourhood. They finally meet their match when a new policeman, Chuzai (Kuranosuke Sasaki), arrives in town intent on actually enforcing the law. When one of the boys is fined for speeding after coming down a steep hill on his bicycle, the guys decide to make Chuzai their new enemy, virtually daring him to arrest them with their constant trolling.

However, things take a turn when the boys move their prank planning meetings to a local cafe and discover the beautiful waitress working there, Kanako (Kumiko Aso). Instantly smitten the boys step up their romance game (donning some fancy outfits in the process) and semi-forget about their mission. Unfortunately Kanako is a married woman and worse than that she’s married to Chuzai! This whole thing just got real.

Chuzai, for all his uptight authoritarianism is onto the boys and their generally innocent mischief. Finding it all very irritating rather than actually dangerous, Chuzai gradually starts playing them at their own game by attempting to prank them back such as in one notable incident where he makes them attend a public behaviour seminar but gives the entire lecture through a ventriloquist’s dummy called Taru-kun. As a slightly older man, Chuzai can see the boys are just hopelessly bored in their backwater town. Breaking with his hitherto austere persona, Chuzai drops the authoritarian line to offer some fatherly advice to the effect that these summers are precious times,  soon the boys’ high school lives will be over and they’ll most likely leave their pleasant small town for the bustling metropolis of Tokyo so they’d better make the most of these aimless days while they can.

Idyllic as it is, the nature of the boys’ mission changes in the second half as the war against Chuzai takes on a slightly more affectionate quality. At this point they decide to use their pranking powers for good to help a little girl who’s stuck in the hospital finally enjoy the summer fireworks she’s been longing for even though the doctors won’t let her out to go to the festival. With the fireworks heist hovering in the background the guys get into various romanctic difficulties while enjoying archetypal teenage summer adventures.

Infused with period detail, 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police has an authentically ‘70s soundtrack with some of the biggest hits of the era running in the background. Frequent cultural references such as a brief appearance from Ultraman add to the atmosphere which has a kind of retro, nostalgic innocence behind it as these kids live in a golden era of friendship and bike riding when the sun is always shining and graduation is still a long way off.

Director Tsukamoto keeps things simple though the production values are high and visual gags are spot on. Somewhat episodic in nature, the tale is split up into various chapters by means of title cards which helps to break up the seemingly endless summer as the boys attempt to fill their otherwise empty days. Apparently this was only the beginning of the “war” against the police, occupying only 108 days of a “conflict” which would finally run to 700. Presumably the guys have finished up their high school days by that point but at least they’ve succeeded in making some amusing memories of their elaborate and sometimes fiendishly clever schemes to take revenge on the surprisingly patient Chuzai-san. Filled with innocent, witty and whimsical comedy 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police offers no great leap forward even within the realm of quirky teen comedies but still manages to provide some old fashioned, wholesome summer themed fun.


Original trailer (English subtitles)