There was probably no way to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle oddity that was the original 1981 Sailor Suit And Machine Gun, a loopy now-perennial piece of Japanese pop culture. This film, released thirty-five years later, mercifully doesn't try to do that. It's — how would modern movie culture parlance put it? — halfway between a sequel and a soft reboot of the material. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to swap in for the original movie's weird, funky vibes. It's competent on its own, but a follow-up to something like SS&MG needs to be more than merely competent.
Bad girls go everywhere
For those who never saw the original SS&MG — basically, everyone outside of Japan -- Graduation provides you with a front-loaded recap of the premise. When high school girl Hoshi Izumi (Kanna Hashimoto) lost her father (here, it's her grandfather), she also inherited his gaggle-of-losers yakuza gang. After reluctantly taking control of the group, she led them to violent gun-toting victory over their rivals — but only on the condition the group disbanded after that mission was accomplished.
Now Izumi's in her senior year, and the two other members of the gang that helped her now work for her at a café. Business is bad, in big part because their reputation as a gangster outfit looms over them like thunderheads. It comes in handy when they pull rank with an unscrupulous, exploitive modeling agency, but blows up in their face when said agency invokes the name of their former rival gang as protection — and when said gang tries to pin blame on them for the proliferation of "Cookie", a new street drug that kills one of her own classmates.
Izumi wades back into the underworld and finds the real problem isn't the old-school gangsters, but the new-school class of corporate criminals arising in the wake of Japan's post-bubble, post-geriatric society. Their goal isn't anything as prosaic as getting kids hooked on some new kicks — it's to create a cradle-to-nursing-home pipeline of dependency on their multiple business models. And when they reveal they're not above partnering with (read: puppeteering) the old-school gangs to get their way, Izumi dusts off her old M3 submachine gun and sets off to administer justice.
Another singular sensation
Both the strongest and weakest things about Graduation stem from how you can't really make sequels to singular projects. It's only possible under the most exceptional circumstances (Blade Runner 2049 did it, for instance), but for the most part you're better off trying to create your own new flavor. To some extent that's what director Kōji Maeda and screenwriter Ryō Takada aim for — something along the lines of the shōjō action-hero franchise Sukeban Deka (of which I am a huge fan), where Izumi goes where the adults can't and leverages all the things only a teenager can. What ends up taking precedence is something a little more mundane: her relationship with a young yakuza who sets aside internecine rivalries in the face of something that threatens the honor of yakuza as a whole, but who doesn't tell her about a thorny part of his own past.
One way Graduation nods towards the original with more success is its visuals. I liked how off-kilter the original SS&MG looked in nearly every scene and every shot. Graduation has the occasional nifty-looking shot, and a few scenes that in retrospect we realize were single unbroken takes. The best of those is when Izumi and her cohorts clean up after an angry anti-yakuza mob trashes their café, and they reminisce about all the ways each of them got to where they are. But like so many other things in the movie, it begs for the rest of the project to be better to complement it.
I always get frustrated when a movie brings up fascinating ideas that it is clearly not equipped to deal with. The main bad guy in the film's a ruthless businessman whose future plans for redeveloping the town they live in brings new meaning to the term "extractive capitalism". It's a great concept, but it deserves a movie more ruthlessly rooted in the idea, more willing to follow the concept to the bitter end in real time. Here, it exists mostly to give Izumi something to get mad over, and for the baddie to make a sneering speech about. It doesn't drive the story so much as it sits in the backseat and makes distracting comments. That's twice as dismaying in a story that needs all the reasons it can get to stand up and be its own thing, instead of just be Part 1 1/2 of something else.