Japanese Girls Never Die [JIFF 2017] – Review

"Happily Ever After" is a lie.

18th Jeonju International Film Festival
World Cinemascape: Spectrum

Japanese Girls Never Die
(アズミ・ハルコは行方不明)

Directed by: Daigo Matsui (松居大悟)

Starring: Yu Aoi (蒼井優), Mitsuki Takahata (高畑充希), Taiga (太賀 ), Shono Hayama (葉山奨之), Huwie Ishizaki (石崎ひゅーい)

The Film: Azumi and Haruko couldn’t be more different in personality, one is bubbly and outgoing and the other is a shy introvert. But both girls find that they have more in common than meets the eye as they struggle to face the pressures of being a young woman in male-dominated Japan. Could the fairy tales of happily ever after really have been so far from the truth? When missing posters of their faces begin to appear all over town, a viral sensation is born.


Review

The film opens with kids running amok and spray painting a stenciled “missing” poster of a girl’s face all over town. There is also a mysterious gang of high school girls going around at night beating up men with baseball bats A Clockwork Orange (1971) style. The face of the missing girl is easily recognizable as Haruko (Yu Aoi) who seems to be alive and well in the following scene at a class reunion party. Viewers can quickly realize that Japanese Girls Never Die is a non-linear film as the scenes continue to jump backward, forward, and in-between a relative time-line associated with Haruko’s disappearance.

Knowing the Japanese title of the film, Azumi – Haruko is Missing, makes these opening scenes much more of a set up to the story and less of a minor puzzle that requires piecing together. While the Japanese title gives the film more of a mystery feeling, the English title gives it one of survival, especially with all the chaos going on in the opening. Either way, a very curious tone and setting for the film is quickly established.

Japanese Girls Never Die is about two girls in their late twenties, Haruko (Yu Aoi) and Azumi (Mitsuki Takahata), who have near polar opposite personalities. They are from the same town, but are leading different lives seemingly unrelated to each other. However, they are both going through a similar struggle, that of being a young woman looking for some kind of “happily ever after” lead-in to their adult lives.

Azumi is a go-getter and determined to lock down a man. Acting out of desperation, she uses her bubbly charm and offers herself as an easy catch to one of the local boys, the free-spirited Yukio (Taiga), after the school reunion and jumps into a relationship with him. Haruko is introverted and seems to be playing the waiting game when it comes to getting into a relationship, that is until she realizes her first love, the withdrawn neighbor boy named Yuji (Huwie Ishizaki), has moved back in to the abandoned house next door left by his late grandfather. Haruko then makes an awkward if not valiant attempt to try and reconnect with him.

Time becomes important not only in the structure of JGND but also in its message. The main characters are all at a peculiar time in their lives, roughly 10 years after graduating from high school, where they are facing the turning-point of youth and adulthood. At 27-28 years old, the endless possibilities and freedom felt in youth begin to narrow out as pressures to settle into “a good life” begin to mount. The time when a part time job at the convenience store suddenly looks like a career choice after the years have flown by and you begin to ask yourself, “Is this who I am and what I wanted to do?” Azumi’s boyfriend, Yukio, who has probably always been a bit “too cool for school” still has boyish dreams of his own and screams into the wind in one scene, “Damn, I want to be somebody!”

Haruko and Azumi begin to represent a reality that many women in Japan are apparently living in. That reality being one in which the decks are stacked in the favor of men who make more money doing the same job as women as well as blame single women for the low birth-rates. There is a lot of pressure on the ladies in JGND regarding them marrying and taking up their designated roles in a male-dominated Japan. Haruko’s older male co-workers constantly harass her and an older girl at her work by saying, “It’s time you settled down with a man and have a kid” and “Just find a man before its too late like Yoshizawa, she’s already 37 and her eggs are about all dried up.” The men also joke about being able to hire a cute young girl to take Yoshizawa’s place if she marries and quits, and about not hiring a qualified male applicant because they would have to pay him more than a female one.

A “We’re not gonna take it, anymore!” attitude combined with the desperation felt by women across Japan sparks an uprising among the women in JGND, and the chaos and rebellion of earlier scenes begin to make more sense as the film progresses. Without giving anything away, the missing girl(s) narrative becomes one intertwined with heavy symbolism, and the film makes a big attempt at sending a message home to its viewers, particularly in Japan.

Clearly spelled out during a particularly entertaining animated sequence near the end, JGND calls for for women to band together to create a force that is not only resistant to the set-in-their-way men of society, but to actively fight back as a collective and create a power so strong it can accomplish the seemingly impossible. It is a great message by the end and a fairly enjoyable journey to get there. With an even mixture of hits and misses, Japanese Girls Never Die passes as an above average curiosity and very worth checking out for those interested.

Trailer


 

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