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Japanese Girls Never Die (Haruko Azumi Is Missing)
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by Jay Seaver

"Lost but finding themselves."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: "Japanese Girls Never Die" looks like it should be trickier to get a handle on than it is, cross-cutting as it does between two or three related stories and putting what looks like a mystery at the center. But for as much fun as puzzle-boxes are, director Daigo Matsui never lets this aspect of it overwhelm the story. We spend more time watching Haruka and Aina and how they individually feel diminished for being different types of young women in modern Japan, less trying to puzzle out how their stories will connect, and as a result, both the bits tie in and those that don't feel like a bonus.

We're introduced to two or three threads right away, as Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi) seemingly vanishes outside a convenience store in the time that it takes a camera to pan back and forth, a group of three young people spray paint a stencil on a wall, and a classroom or two's worth of schoolgirls rowdily fills a movie theater. Soon enough, we're flashing back to get to know folks better - Haruko still lives at home at the age of 27, working in the office of a small business where senior office lady Hiroko Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada) does all the work and the two men in charge don't even pretend to treat the women equally; her friend Hitomi (Serina) is marrying a wealthy older man, but she's looking at Yuji Soga (Huwie Ishizaki), a slacker from her high-school class still working at a local convenience store. Speaking of high-school classmates, 20-year-old Yukio Toagashi (Taiga) just loaned his friend Manabu Mitsuhashi (Shono Hayama) a documentary on a graffiti artist, and though they don't turn out to be particularly talented taggers, Haruko's missing-person poster catches their eye, as does Aina Kinami (Mitsuki Takahata), another classmate studying to be a nail stylist whom they make part of the gang in part because she seems like she'd be easy even if she is clingy. There are also news reports about a gang of teenage girls attacking single men out alone, but it's initially hard to register whether these scenes are happening in the background of the other stories or on their own.

For all that Matsui and screenwriter Misaki Setoyama (adapting a novel by Mariko Yamaguchi) seem to be jumping around, their focus is surprisingly tight: Haruko and Aina are both young women pulled back into the orbits of the men they went to high school with, maybe looking to reconnect with a time when more seemed possible even though these guys don't seem to be particularly invested in anything right now or interested in treating them well. Haruko and Aina may not have the exact same story, but there are certainly enough similarities that there's a certain tension to the idea that Aina could wind up on a poster of her own, chewed up by the same world that seems to have no place for a woman other than marriage to some deeply flawed man (or if not flawed, then from so far afield that a woman must be exceptionally lucky to find him).

Matsui et al do exceptionally well tying all this together, and it works in large part because the two eventual protagonists are so different even as they face similar issues. Yu Aoi gets the title role (the film is called "Haruko Azumi Is Missing" in Japan) and does a great job with it. The script can often be an exercise in beating Haruko down, but Aoi is great at showing how Haruko is able to grab at the positive in a situation (there's a wonderful camaraderie to her scenes with Maho Yamada's Yoshizawa) while also making clear the downside of how desperately she'll grasp at straws or fall into despair when that positive is false or elusive. Aoi and the filmmakers make Haruko just simple enough that one can understand the other characters using her image as an empty template, but individual enough for the audience to grow attached and worry about her.

What Mitsuki Takahata does with the younger Aina is perhaps more impressive. Aina is seemingly shallow and frivolous, seemingly ornamental both in her job at the salon and for how she joins the graffiti gang after they've already started, and she does not particularly reveal any hidden depths. What Takahata does is to make sure that even when Aina is motivated by wanting a boy's attention, she's got a sense of humor and more self-worth than she sometimes lets on; she may be looking for a boyfriend, but she's no leech with nothing but her body to offer, and when people don't recognize this, it brings out legitimate and raw anger. The audience may not see this at first - Aina may not see this at first - but it's always there and Takahata gets the audience on Aina's side even if she's the furthest thing from an obvious feminist icon

It's the same with the girl gang beating on random young men - they start as a joke glimpsed briefly in news stories, become serious as they encounter the main characters, and end as a hell-yeah metaphor for girls taking the next step in not taking any crap. Their genesis is kind of absurd but also energizing for how they get wide-eyed watching a cartoon and realizing that they don't just have to be victims or love interests. It's also a capper to how this revelation has been moving back, from career girls (and presumed caregivers) like Haruko realizing that they're being treated unfairly to Ainas wanting more to a secondary role to teenagers getting proactive. The gang may not have the clarity that Haruko does, and their energetic efforts will likely backfire, but they're not going to get stuck in the positions where Haruko and Aina find themselves without a fight.

"Japanese Girls Never Die" doesn't exactly spell out that message, but it's clear, and clarity is something Matsui et al care about: The filmmakers would rather include enough detail that one can make connections early rather than overburden the last few minutes. The opening makes it seem a lot more arty than it actually winds up being, if arty is thought of as impenetrable or difficult, but like the best movies with this structure and style, it tires together so naturally that seeing it as complicated eventually seems like a misjudgment, and what it's trying to get across winds up having more energy and impact.

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originally posted: 07/14/17 06:59:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Daigo Matsui

Written by
  Misaki Setoyama

  Yű Aoi
  Mitsuki Takahata
  Shono Hayama

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