Japanese idol culture certainly has its fair share of fans outside of Japan, and its sheer oddness undoubtedly explains a large part of this appeal. Those left reeling after last year's Moon Child presented us with the deadpan spectacle of androgynous rock poseurs HYDE and Gackt prancing and preening around lavish futuristic sets with pistols and vampire capes are going to have even more fun with this freak offering.
This time round it's the ladies' turn, with two hot young J-Pop talents Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya elevating kitsch to hitherto undreamt of levels in a pastel-hued, pop-cultural pot-pourri that comes at you fists flying like a self-conscious riposte to the fanboy idolatry of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill filtered through the doey-eyed aesthetic of a world far closer to home, the shojo manga (or girls' comic).
Momoko (Fukuda) is an aficionado of the Lolita-look, one of those "only in Japan" fashions endemic to Tokyo's Harajuku area where its adherents can be seen congregating every Sunday to have their photos taken: an outlandish miscegenation of Vladimir Nabokov's eponymous pre-pubescent sweet-sucking vamp, Morticia Addams and the classic French maid fantasy. Looking like a cuter version of current reigning pop queen Ayumi Hamasaki clothed in a pristine pink frilly Bo-Peep dress, Momoko is a long way from Harajuku however. Her troubled childhood beginning in the delivery room with her mother running off with her gynaecologist, she now lives with a senile grandma and a petty criminal of a father, whose last scam ended with a quick change of address to out in the sticks after being run out of town for hawking fake Versace handbags. Stuck amongst the cow shit and paddy fields of rural Ibaraki prefecture, where the local fashion ideal is a 200-yen polo shirt from the local outlet store Juscos, she yearns of escaping back into the opulent world of the 18th century court of Versailles, to the glory days of when the French aristocracy idled their days away in an ecstasy of sleep, embroidery and country walks. Fortunately salvation arrives just in time to shake her out of her hazy rococo reverie in the form of Ichiko, a biker girl with grrrl and an Ozzy Osbourne approach to eyeliner. A member of the no-men-allowed biker pack The Ponytails, her appearance in Ibaraki leads to a very peculiar sort of friendship, and one which guarantees that Momoko's life will never be the same again.
After a brief animated sequence, Kamikaze Girls begins in a Miike-style hail of jump cuts and raucous music, with Momoko on her scooter speeding across the rustic flatlands around the foot of the Ushiku Buddha in Ibaraki with an intense sense of purpose about her, before her mission comes to an abrupt end when she is hit by a truck and knocked flying in a shower of garden vegetables and pachinko balls. In a scripting device lifted from David Fincher's Fight Club and also familiar from Ping Pong, there follows a fast rewind back to the actual "beginning" as Momoko's voiceover brings us up to speed with the events that led to this humiliating near brush with death.
The back story leading to Momoko's first encounter with her snarling soul mate comes thick and fast in vibrant hues and a fast choppy editing style. With a sniggering eye on the eccentricities of Japanese fashion obsessions, Kamikaze Girls maps out its desexualised bubblegum world with a quirky and infectious brand of humour similarly-styled to that pioneered in the TV and film work of Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Trick, 2DLK). The main difference with the recent theatrical offerings of Tsutsumi, who rather perversely sees the future of Japanese film in terms of increasing convergence with the more stable TV industry, is that Kamikaze Girls adds a surface sheen that means the film actually looks like it was made for theatrical presentation rather than the more intimate and forgiving medium of the small screen. Not surprising to discover then that its director, Tetsuya Nakashima, whose best known work was the similarly frivolous Beautiful Sunday (1998), has a background in pop promos for the likes of Chara and Momoko Bido, and needless to say the results are slick.
Though proceedings might have benefited from a little more raunch about them, and Tsuchiya's yakuza shtick soon gets more than a little wearing, the results are certainly wacky enough to guarantee Kamikaze Girls a certain cult potential. With one character mugging to the camera "Here's a cartoon to keep you kids amused" as the back story of a the legendary Himiko of the Kanazawa all-girl biker gang is recounted in animated form, Nakashima seems eager to nudge things that one step further beyond Tarantino's pop-cultural allusions. Like Kill Bill however, such whimsies as character development remain all but buried beneath the candy-coloured maelstrom. It's an enjoyable ride, but with its glib, gag-laden plotting unfolding and backtracking down an ever-expanding maze of narrative side alleys and cul-de-sacs, there may be just as many finding themselves scratching their heads halfway through and wondering where the whole thing is going as those revelling in this gaudy fantasy world.