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Recently seen movies #152

July 16, 2009

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Japan, 1981) – 4/5

Probably the most important – and best – idol film of all time, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun was producer Haruki Kadokawa’s final breakthrough in the idol film genre. It was a bit ironic that while the traditional studio loyalty among filmmakers in had come to an end in the late 70’s, only a few years later Kadokawa gained almost exclusive rights to the new generation of idol actresses. Noriko Watanabe, Tomoyo Harada, and most importantly Hiroko Yakushimaru, replaced the great Momoe Yamaguchi who had just retired from show business at the age of 21.

Yakushimaru – commonly know just as Hiroko – and usually referred as super-idol rather than idol, made her cinema debut in 1978 when she was just 13 years old. She played the leading female role in Kadokawa’s slightly megalomaniac modern action film Never Give Up, starring Ken Takura. Yakushimaru’s real breakthrough came in 1981 when she starred in Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s fantasy film School in the Crosshairs and later the same year in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Somai, sadly ignored in the west, is perhaps the best Japanese director of the 1980’s. His directorial was Tonda Couple (1980), a small drama-comedy starring Hiroki Yakushimaru. Sailor Suit and Machine Gun was Somai’s second film. Yakushimaru plays Izumi Hoshi, a normal high school girl who inherits a small yakuza gang. The leader of the gang had passed away and named his nephew – Izumi’s father – as successor. Unfortunately Izumi’s father dies in a traffic accident before he even dicovers of his new appointment. According to the yakuza code the position now transfers to the only remaining blood relative – Izumi.

On surface Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a discreet parody of the yakuza film genre. Later in the 80’s idol films and television shows came to lean heavily on action, with Toei’s Sukeban Deka dominating the so called High School Action genre. Sailor Suit and Machine Gun does not follow this formula. Despite the high flying concept Somai is far more interested in characters and quiet little scenes. There are several magnificent moments where all action nearly freezes – including the machine gun finale which is not only very short, but also the only scene where the film’s title becomes reality. The adrenaline seeking Ryuhei Kitamura generation will be severly disappointed and left wondering where all the action is.

The more outrageous moments are in fact one of the the film’s weak points. Somai is not entirely comfortable with a screenplay that features over-the-top supporting characters, such as a maniac drug lord called Fatty (Rentaro Mikuni). Some of the actors, especially Shinpei Hayashiya who plays a member of Izumi’s gang, also play their role in too loud volume which doesn’t go well together with Somai’s perceptive and slightly arthouse-esque directing. Nevertheless, the core idea – a high school girl becoming a yakuza leader – is undeniably very memorable and one of the reasons why the film became so popular.

One of the more suprising and probably confusing to many viewers sequences is a short sex scene between Tsunehiko Watase and Yuki Kazamatsuri. This scene briefly features ”black bar blocking the view” censorship that has accompanied Japanese erotic cinema since the dawn of woman. This scene was most likely intended as a reference to Kazamatsuri’s career; she was a regular actress in Nikkatsu’s pink films in the early 80’s. International audiences have most likely seen her in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, where she appears night club host. Her performance in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is somewhat adequate, but outshadowed by Yakushimaru and action film veteran Watase.

Director Somai’s most important tool has always been his camera. The director has great skill in planning ane executing long and complicated takes. Although in 1981 Somai’s skills were not yet fully developed, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun features an excessive amount of impressive camerawork. There is a large number of long takes, including a classic sequence that takes the characters from the streets to a shrine and ultimately to the other side of the district riding a motorcycle. This six minute scene was completed without a single edit.

The 17 year old Hiroko Yakushimaru is at her best in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. Her acting skills improved later – at least in the eyes of critics and the Japanese Academy Award commitee that nominated her as the best actress of the year in 1984 for her role in Tragedy of W – but Yakushimaru’s acting has rarely been as fresh and enjoyable as it is in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. This film also marked the beginning of her hugely successful pop-star career that produced more than 100 songs. The theme song for Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is among her best. It is heard in the film just before the magnificent final scene, and is followed by one of the most memorable ending lines.

After its hugely successful release in 1981, Kadokawa released a 130 minute ”Complete Version” in 1982. This longer cut installs 18 minutes of additional footage into the film. Some of the additions make the narrative more fluent – and there’s an important scene featuring Hiroko drying her hair – but the Complete Version isn’t really a better movie than the original cut. 130 min is slightly too much for this movie, and there’s a long sequence where Izumi nearly gets raped that feels out of place. Also in 1982 a Sailor Suit and Machine Gun television series was aired on Fuji TV. This series featured the future star Tomoyo Harada in her fist acting role. Incidentally, her next work was a television version of School in the Crosshairs, an adaptation of yet another a Hiroko Yakushimaru movie. Sailor Suir and Machine Gun returned to TV screens one more time in 2006 when TBS broadcast the second small screen adaptation, this time with Masami Nagasawa playing the leading role.

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