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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: May 19, 2023

Nakashima took Japanese Quirk and Kawaii to Another Level

Fanart based on the Japanese film Kamikaze Girls by Tetsuya Nakashima
Fanart © Japanese Cinema Archives

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Cast: Kyôko Fukada, Anna Tsuchia, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Sadao Abe, Eiko Koike

Related films: Memories of Matsuko, The World of Kanako, Confessions

Year: 2004

Verdict: 4.5/6


Introducing Kamikaze Girls

Kamikaze Girls is the epitome of Harajuku fashion and Japanese quirk. While the peak of Harajuku fashion and Japanese quirk cinema may be a thing of the past in terms of media coverage, the subculture endures, partly due to the influence of Kamikaze Girls.

From the first scene, director Nakashima drags you into his world of Japanese lolita kawaii and roughhousing Yanki extravagance. To enhance the experience, he sprinkles the wild visuals with crazy anime cut scenes, punk rock, and Johan Strauss. It's a nonsensical spectacle void of substance, yet impossible to forget.

Kamikaze Girls glorified individual freedom and senseless capitalism while simultaneously extending a big middle finger to Japanese conformity. The story was virtually nonexistent, but the visual onslaught spoke volumes. So get ready for an all-inclusive 5-course assault on your senses, and join in on a bizarre journey through the back alleys of Japanese cult cinema.

The Subcultural Background That Shaped Kamikaze Girls

In the late 1970s, a new wave of Japanese fashion emerged that rejected traditional notions of style and beauty. This movement took inspiration from all sorts of exuberant styles and spat out the undefinable and eclectic look that has since become known as Harajuku fashion.

After that, Harajuku fashion evolved into a broader range of subcultures, including, Gyaru, Ganguro, Bôzôsoku, Gothic, Decora Kei, Visual Kei, Cosplay, Kawaii, and the Lolita fashion movement that’s on display in Kamikaze Girls.

Lolita fashion is characterized by its Victorian-inspired dresses, frilly blouses, and elaborate hair and makeup. It takes its name from the famous novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which features an innocent and provocative young girl. Lolita fashion emphasizes a cute and feminine aesthetic but also has elements of rebellion and nonconformity.

In the late 80s and 90s, Harajuku became a hub for these subcultures, with young people gathering in the area to show off their unique fashion styles. The district became known for street fashion and was popularized in the West through magazines such as Fruits and Kera.

Kamikaze Girls offered a rare glimpse into the world of Japanese fashion subcultures. Not only did it represent these subcultures in a feature film format, but it also helped to popularize them outside of Japan. The film quickly became a cult classic in the West, and its influence helped spread the Harajuku fashion movement abroad.

An Elvis look-alike Japanese Yanki acts out in a pachinko parlor. Taken from the film Kamikaze Girls.
Image courtesy of Third Window Films

Lolita and Yanki | The Story of Two Kamikaze Girls

The film follows the unlikely friendship between two teenage girls: Momoko, a self-proclaimed Lolita, and Ichigo, a biker chick who dreams of joining a gang. Through their friendship, the film explored the themes of individuality, friendship, and the importance of self-expression.

We soon learned that Momoko is obsessed with Lolita outfits. Since she lived in a rural area where the supply of such clothes was nonexistent, she developed a keen sense of designing and making such outfits herself.

Then, when she visited a legendary Lolita shop in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, the store's proprietor begged her to join his team. Thus her life turned into a complete fairy-tale dreamland in which she got to work with the thing she loved most.

It all sounded like fun, games, cotton candy, and unicorns, but Momoko soon realized that work is a hassle in all its shapes and forms. Before long, she decided to quit and live by her new mantra: It is more fun to shop for clothes than to make them. As she so eloquently put it: Labor doesn’t become me.

As the story moved on, both Momoko and Ichigo underwent growth and development. Momoko learned to let go of her obsession with the Rococo era and embrace her true self. She became more confident and assertive, stood up to her father, and pursued her dreams.

Ichigo, on the other hand, learned to appreciate the value of true friendship and the importance of being true to oneself. She also realized that her dream of becoming a biker gang leader might not be the right path.

The third and last act of the movie stumbled quite a bit. The attempt to connect nonexistent narrative threads to concoct some sort of climax significantly lowered the excitement level.

When attention was steered away from the brain-numbing design, the narrative shortcomings were all the more evident. The ending would probably have worked better if the film had given in to its nonsensical form and focused on visual extravagance to the very end.

The story in Kamikaze Girls is hardly important. It mainly served as a canvas for Nakashima’s wacky antics. This film is all about appearance, and its appearance is a joy to behold. And even though the characters and storytelling lacked depth, that is not to say that Kamikaze Girls was void of messages between the lines.

A lolita girl looks at the sign on the back of a biker girl’s scooter. Taken from the film Kamikaze Girls.
Image courtesy of Third Window Films

Superficial Substance | Kamikaze Girls Analysis

Though Kamikaze Girls was an exercise in superficiality, it reflected the attitudes and values of Japanese youth cultures of its time. Momoko represented the growing popularity of the Lolita fashion subculture, while Ichigo represented the rebellious spirit of the Yanki subculture.

Through their interactions, we see how these subcultures contrasted and overlapped. More importantly, it bore testimony to the great diversity of Japanese subcultures, at least on the surface. Lolitas and Yankis might appear as different as subcultures come, but in the eyes of the general Japanese populace, they were both anomalies.

An interesting detail in this respect is that Japan's Yanki subculture is usually associated with delinquency and deviant behavior. However, in Kamikaze Girls, it became a symbol of individuality and the desire to break free from societal norms and be your true self.

Some have criticized Kamikaze Girls for glorifying the Yanki subculture, while others have suggested that the film's portrayal of the Lolita fashion subculture objectifies young girls. However, Kamikaze Girls was also praised for employing strong independent female protagonists.

Where Does the Lolita Fashion End and the Lolita Complex Begin?

The Lolita Complex, commonly referred to as Lolicon, is a prevailing phenomenon in Japan centered around the fetishization of young girls. Lolicon has been closely associated with the sexualization of underage girls, giving rise to a significant concern regarding the objectification and exploitation of women.

Kamikaze Girls presents Momoko as a resilient and self-reliant young woman who fearlessly expresses her individuality. However, it can be argued that her chosen style inadvertently perpetuates the Lolita Complex, which associates young girls with objects of sexual desire.

Moreover, some critics have raised concerns over the portrayal of Lolita fashion as a means for women to manipulate and exert control over men. In this regard, Kamikaze Girls reinforces the harmful stereotype that women are inherently manipulative and deceptive.

A final criticism of Kamikaze Girls, which somewhat undermines the abovementioned critiques, is its prioritization of style over substance. This seems fitting, considering that the story lacks depth. While the visually captivating elements hold your attention for the most part, when the pace slows down, the narrative's shortcomings become more evident.

The focus on style serves as a reminder of the influence of Japanese capitalism. These girls base their lives on style and image, which is enjoyable for a while, but leads them nowhere when the realities of life come knocking on their door.

As such, the lack of substance seems to be the essence of Kamikaze Girls and serves as a fitting reflection of the entire Harajuku phenomenon. The extreme focus on appearance and style might even be considered a commentary on Japanese youth or society as a whole.

Who knows? Watching films is more fun than engaging in the politics behind them. Social commentary doesn’t become me.

A lolita girl looking strangely at a yankee girl with a cigarette in her nose. Taken from the film Kamikaze Girls by Tetsuya Nakashima.
Image courtesy of Third Window Films

Nonconforming Conformity | Similar Films to Kamikaze Girls

In terms of genre, it is almost impossible to categorize Kamikaze Girls, but we’ll give it a go anyway. It is a mishmash of comedy, tragedy, action, drama, and gangster films all in one. In film-theoretical terms, it can be described as a modern take on Japanese new-wave cinema, pasted into an expressionist setting and spiked with slapstick humor from start to end.

Kamikaze Girls is often compared to other coming-of-age movies like Mean Girls and Clueless. Like these movies, Kamikaze Girls explores young women's struggles and triumphs as they navigate through adolescence.

However, Kamikaze Girls sets itself apart by celebrating nonconformity and individuality while also tackling issues of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, it is arguably a significant representation of Japanese youth culture, though it exaggerated, satirized, and caricatured everything about it.

As such, Kamikaze Girls has also been compared to Japanese movies, such as Battle Royale, Suicide Club, and Love Exposure. However, while all these movies explored themes of youth culture and nonconformity, Kamikaze Girls stood with its focus on style.

Its intention seemed linked to that of its protagonist, to stand out as an obnoxiously sweet and candy-coated beacon of high capitalism. Its use of bright colors, quirky characters, and eclectic soundtrack created a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that was just as distinct in Japan as abroad, and therein laid Nakashima’s genius.

Final Verdict for Kamikaze Girls

Whether calculated or coincidental, Kamikaze Girls' celebration of individuality and nonconformity appeals to various cultures. And therefore, it became a timeless cult classic that resonates with anyone who has ever traversed the hurdles of self-discovery and acceptance.

As mentioned, the story itself is somewhat lacking, but the overload of nonsensical encounters and hilarious characters more than makes up for it. Kamikaze Girls might not be the best Japanese quirky comedy of its time in terms of script or dialogue, but no film was as visually vivacious. The design alone makes it recommendable and re-watchable.

Kamikaze Girls is a must-see for fans of Survive Style 5+, Taste of Tea, Yatterman, or even Tampopo. It is truly unique and sometimes even hilarious, as long as you don't expect any meaningful story. Over-the-top outfits, kitschy settings, ridiculous characters, and nonsense are what Kamikaze Girls is all about, and what a delightfully trippy fairy tale it is.


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Midnight Eye: Kamikaze Girls

Kamikaze Girls looks razor-sharp in HD. The intense mix of strong colors and crystal-clear images takes perfect advantage of the medium. The region-free Blu-ray release from Third Window Films is the best version we have seen.

Unfortunately, it appears to be out of stock pretty much everywhere, So second-hand copies are probably your best option. As for DVDs, the copies we watched were halfway decent but didn’t really do the film justice.

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