'Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation' Film Review

Courtesy of Kadokawa/Deltamac
Another remake misses the mark.

Indie filmmaker Koji Maeda remakes Shinji Somai’s 1981 cult classic, headlining J-Pop star Kanna Hashimoto.

The potential for great satire, as well as 21st-century social commentary, slips through director Koji Maeda’s fingers in this loose re-envisioning of Shinji Somai’s 1981 cult original, now titled Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation. Based on the 1978 novel by Jiro Akagawa, the action movie about an average schoolgirl stepping back into her uncle’s Yakuza shoes and leading his gang has all the ingredients needed for an entertaining and possibly cutting spin on the crime flick. But unlike Somai’s original — sort of like Kick-Ass' Hit-Girl for Japan in the '80s — Maeda squanders the premise with a diffuse message, a wildly inconsistent tone and an unengaging lead, lacking the necessary nuance. The film may find a place on genre festival slates based on its pedigree, but beyond that it’s likely to slide swiftly into obscurity.

Izumi (the pretty but dramatically vacant Kanna Hashimoto of middling J-pop girlband Rev. from DVL) is a normal, popular high school girl — the kind that doesn’t stand out for any particular reason. She’s well-adjusted, friendly with her neighbors and respectful of the elderly. She lives in and runs the Medaka Cafe, the enterprise for which she opted as head of the Medaka Family, after dissolving the Yakuza outfit and begging off crime. She gets help from the clan’s three remaining loyal soldiers: the exuberant Yuji (Takuro Ohno), grandfatherly Haruo (Shohei Uno) and the true lieutenant Doi (Tetsuya Takeda).

When Izumi learns that the rival Hamaguchi Family boss (veteran Masato Ibu) has broken a treaty by dealing drugs on neutral ground, she starts digging around, eventually uncovering a conspiracy led by outsider and budding developer Yasui (Masanobu Ando, Petal Dance, Battle Royale). Such nefariousness compels Izumi to crack out the machine gun once again and set things right, with help from Hamaguchi dissenter Tsukinaga (Hiroki Hasegawa, Attack on Titan).

Somewhere beneath the paint-by-numbers narrative and dull characters is a gentle Yakuza film spoof, running parallel with an even gentler lament for Japan’s dying provincial towns and the increasing power of land barons seeking to remake those towns in their own high-rise image. The proverbial mustache-twirling Yasui is that most modern of organized-crime thugs, the ones dressed in Wall Street-ready suits that hide behind desks.

But Maeda and screenwriter Ryo Takada (the two have worked together in the past on Cannonball Wedlock, among other medium-length films) never weave the various story threads together in any significant way, making the final hail of bullets only marginally cathartic or redemptive. It’s no help that Hashimoto is unconvincing as a teen gangster, and an early demonstration of her badassery is jettisoned as soon as the main action kicks in. She's turned into an inept and indecisive leader, raising questions about why Yuji, Haruo and Doi are so devoted.

Blame for the problems of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation cannot be placed solely at the feet of the young Hashimoto. But she does bear much of the responsibility for the film's failings (watching her get "thrown" by a bomb blast, which clearly involves her just rolling around on the floor, is an unintentional high point).

The chief perpetrators, of course, are Maeda and Takada. The screenwriter’s plot machinations are often either nonsensical (like when Izumi marches into the Hamaguchi stronghold to expose corruption among them) or labored. A bizarre and simultaneously cliched romance between Izumi and Tsukinaga is a non-starter; perhaps halfway though filming everyone realized just how stat-rapey and unpleasant it was.

The movie also suffers from an oddly flat visual aesthetic when the action doesn’t look simply inert. Tech work is pedestrian, odd for Japanese cinema, in a film that goes on about 30 minutes too long. By the time Izumi utters the defining "Kaikan" ("Fantastic"), the twisted revelation it implied in the '81 version serves only to conjure unflattering comparisons.

Production company: Twins Japan, Geek Sight
Cast: Kanna Hashimoto, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masanobu Ando, Takuro Ohno, Shohei Uno, Masato Ibu, Tetsuya Takeda
Director: Koji Maeda
Screenwriter: Ryo Takada, based on the novel by Jiro Akagawa
Producer: Hideki Hoshino
Executive producer: Shinichiro Inoue
Director of photography: Daisuke Soma
Production designer: Yukihisa Satosu
Costume designer: Mari Miyamoto
Editor: Satou Tatari
Music: Shinsuke Kida
World sales: Kadokawa

In Japanese
No rating, 119 minutes