The original title for Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die, based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel of the same name, is Haruko Azumi Is Missing. So I suppose it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the protagonist of the film, 26-year-old Haruko Azumi (Yû Aoi), quite suddenly disappears in this colorful, timeline-jumping mystery. But Matsui’s approach goes far deeper than the central question of what happened to Haruko, instead offering a societal critique that also serves as a celebration of the bright, badass spirit of Japanese women.
Haruko is single and works a dead-end job with two male bosses who constantly critique her appearance, debate over the biological validity of her eggs and concern themselves with her ability to “win a husband.” They also make one million yen a month to her 130,000, despite the fact that they rely on Haruko to do all the work.
She lives at home with her parents and grandmother in an unhappy domicile where nothing ever changes – until she runs into her neighbor and childhood friend Soga (Huey Ishizaki). He’s a weirdo, but he pays the smallest amount of attention to Haruko and remembers the name of her beloved cat, and in the midst of such stultifying tedium, their small romantic encounters mean something to Haruko.
We also meet Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a nail artist who fashions herself into being everything she thinks Japanese men want out of women: adorable, giggly, girlish, very flattering and willing to jump into bed. We’re at some point in the future now, as Aina joins graffiti artists Manabu (Shôno Hayama) and Yukio (Taiga) in tagging Haruko’s missing posters all over the city. In the months since her disappearance, Haruko has become a symbol of power and freedom. Meanwhile, Aina is as trapped as Haruko ever was.
Over and over, we see instances of sexism darkening Haruko and Aina’s lives: income disparity, slut shaming, utter disregard for their potential. But at the same time, we hear stories of a “girls gang” terrorizing the streets, a group of brightly-dressed high school girls who beat up grown men in dark alleys in thrilling and beautifully lit fight sequences. When Haruko sees the girls gang in action, she looks frightened, until the ringleader tells her, “You’re safe. We don’t do girls. We only get revenge on guys.”
Japanese Girls Never Die is gorgeous and thoughtful, at first impressionistic in its series of vignettes until the pieces join together to form a very compelling whole. Aoi and Takahata are so engaging in their twin roles of two very different girls who are disrespected in equal ways by the men who surround them. It’s poppy and pretty and wildly colored, but like Aina, there’s something much deeper beneath its spray-painted surface.