It's the first of Hideaki Anno's three live-action films in his hiatus from the anime industry, before eventually returning for more Neon Genesis Evangelion. It has bizarre camerawork and it's about enjo kosai.
Firstly, enjo kosai. This means "compensated dating" and is usually taken to mean schoolgirl prostitution, although that's an oversimplification. It refers to men giving money or presents to women (often schoolgirls), in return for being allowed to spend time with them. Sometimes, yes, this involves sex. Usually though it doesn't. It's been claimed that most enjo kosai dates merely involve girls accepting money to go to a karaoke bar, for instance. This probably sounds weird. It is. Japan has a vigorous mainstream sex industry, both in terms of porn and prostitutes, so it seems plausible that enjo kosai might be attracting customers who are looking for something more idiosyncratic.
Secondly, Hideaki Anno. He's the co-founder of Gainax and probably the biggest name in anime after Hayao Miyazaki. He's also a bit unstable, but aren't we all?
Thirdly, the shooting style. This is just freaky. Anno never stops using distracting camera angles, to the extent that it occasionally detracts from the film. It's creative, I'll give it that. It makes complete sense that he'd be going this berserk if you look at his anime, but I notice he achieved more with less in Ritual
and then more or less went mainstream with Cutie Honey
. Nevertheless it's worth checking out, just to see how far he goes. He'll use fish-eye lenses looking out from inside a microwave, or looking down at the ground from inside a girl's skirt. He might spend an entire scene studying shoes. There's one scene where Asumi Miwa's suffering an emotional reaction and Anno squashes the picture to a seventh of its normal width, leaving the rest of the screen as big black bars. I don't think any scene in the film is shot normally.
By the end, we have objects flying in the air as the narration analyses Miwa's motives. While I'm on the subject, incidentally, there's another disconnect between what we see and hear. Most of the film is done as voice-over. The visuals can thus afford to play around, since they're basically moving illustrations for a monologue. Occasionally they lose contact entirely with what we're listening to and show us random unrelated images and/or visual metaphor.
All that is distracting, but that's arguably a good thing because the story itself is understated. Four girls go out shopping in Shibuya. The film ends when one of them (Miwa) comes home that evening. We hop around in time a bit and see what they've been doing in the past, but basically it comes down to Miwa deciding she wants to buy an absurdly expensive topaz ring and having options available to her for earning that kind of money. This isn't presented dramatically. The film has neither antagonists nor even arguably protagonists. We just watch the girls being ordinary. They talk about stuff. They discuss swimsuits. One of them admits in private to having earned money from having sex on enjo kosai dates, but another one is thinking of dumping her boyfriend because he wants to make their relationship physical and she's not ready. Even what's basically just an hour of karaoke might make some of them uncomfortable, if it means they got paid for it.
The camerawork helps, oddly. It doesn't look like a movie. Instead it feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, pieced together from captured footage, and the acting style backs that up. What we see feels real and the film's clearly trying to say something about enjo kosai and the girls who drift unthinkingly into doing it, instead of just exploiting the phenomenon for an audience's entertainment.
The real freakshow element is of course the customers. They're all normal, more or less. You can talk to them. They'll seem nice and they'll give good advice, sometimes because they disapprove of the girls' decision to do enjo kosai in the first place. In fact in some ways it's the innocent ones who seem the strangest, because no effort is involved in believing that a sweaty, stinking Tourette's sufferer might want to buy himself some companionship. Harder to wrap your head around though are freaks like the guy who wants girls to come back to his apartment for dinner. That's not a euphemism, by the way. Essentially he's hiring digestive systems. He's cooked a small banquet and he doesn't want it to go in the bin, you see. The guy's a food maniac and he won't shut up about it, which of course the girls have no interest in. They eat, get paid and leave.
Nice work if you can get it, right? The money is ridiculous, too. A prostitute would have been cheaper. This film is a study of a social phenomenon, as I said, with the girls being the main focus but the customers providing the real colour. The Grape Guy is harmless enough, but that's one weird fetish. Mr Tourette's is easily the most entertaining thing in the film, until of course he, um, forces the pace.
Captain XX is even played by Tadanobu Asano, which surprised me. This isn't a film where you notice the performances, but there he is. Incidentally I've just noticed that he was in Kenneth Branagh's Thor last year, which I hadn't expected because I'd had no idea he spoke English. This film was also the first significant role for Yukie Nakama.
Overall, I think I liked this one. It seems sincere in its attempt to portray a complicated subject as honestly as possible, although it does let itself down at the end by getting a bit moralistic. That felt very Anno, actually. He does tend to over-intellectualise things and lose the plot in his finales. I thought he did that here too, but equally I can't disagree with what he's saying and it's hard to object to a film trying to comment and analyse its subject matter. If nothing else it's digging past the usual assumption that enjo kosai girls are driven by consumerism and a wish to buy expensive things, although obviously this is a major factor. These girls aren't idiots. They talk about their futures and whether it's right for one of them to quit school in order to accept an offer from a professional dance company.
It's not even exploitative. You could show it to your mum. I can't stop wondering about the symbolism of the closing credits, incidentally... our four girls are walking down one of those dribbling rivers with massive flood walls that you'll see in Japanese cities. Below street level. Normally safe. When the weather turns bad, lethal.