Here is one of those movies where the exact details of the execution mean everything. The plot is parboiled absurdity of the highest order, the characters are either die-stamped cutouts or leering loons, and the material sometimes veers near squick territory. But the end result is one of Japan's oddest and bounciest cultural milestones, a left-of-center adaptation of a popular novel that zags when you think it would zig.
Girl gang? Gang girl?
SS&MG originally came from the pen of stupefyingly profilic novelist Jirō Akagawa, best known for his comedic mysteries (e.g., the Three Sisters Investigate series), and with with some five-hundred plus novels to his name (take that, Georges Simenon). Almost none of his work is available in English; one hopes the recent explosion in light novels will stimulate interest in his work, as it falls neatly into that bucket. Unfortunately SS&MG is among the missing, so for the uninitiated it's hard to tell how closely the film follows its source material. But if Akagawa got his rep for introducing comedic screwball twists into shopworn plots, the movie's spot-on in that respect.
Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru), a straightlaced high-school girl, gets the shock of her life when she finds out her estranged father, ostensibly a traveling salesman, has died. It's not his death that's the biggest jolt, though: Dad was in fact the head of a small, rather dysfunctional yakuza gang, and his dying wish was that the ownership of the gang be passed down to Izumi. The other gang members, most of whom are on the doltish side, are as put off by this decision as she is. But the one reasonably competent member of the group, Sakuma (Tsunehiko Watase, veteran of countless "real" yakuza movies including the classic Battles Without Honor and Humanity), impresses her enough with both his sincerity and his masculinity generally that she agrees.
This last bit, the relationship between the grizzled gangster and the spunky, naïve schoolgirl, could have been handled horribly. Instead, it has more the flavor of an older brother/little sister relationship, where Sakuma walks Izumi through the various corners and dark alleys of the yakuza underworld, and treats her like Dad is always still in the room somewhere. The rival gangs that had unfinished business with Dad's crew all get a smirk out of the fact that the late boss's business is now being handled by Little Miss Sailor Suit. They also have zero qualms about making a target out of her, something Sakuma only fully realizes when she's kidnapped and dunked by crane into wet cement — and which spurs him to retaliate in classic yakuza fashion, by taking hostage one of their own.
Gradually, with the help of Sakuma and the others, Izumi comes to grips with all the things her dad was embroiled in. She's not ever comfortable in the role that fate chose for her, but she rises to it with greater aplomb with each go-round. And there's no question she feels a certain thrill about the whole thing, an impulse that in time liberates her to be more unpredictable and dangerous than her enemies are ever willing to give her credit for. Such is the buildup to the moment hinted at by the very title of the movie, where Izumi blasts a roomful of thugs with her burp gun and gasps out "Kaikan!" ("What a rush!")*.
She's a rebel; so's the movie
A larger plot does spin together over time out of all the pieces dangled in front of us. They involve a woman, only slightly older than Izumi, who was apparently Dad's mistress, and who big-sisters Izumi in the absence of her father. Turns out she was up to no good, along with Dad himself, and now the rival gangs who wanted a piece of what Dad had his hands in want it from her as well. The most ambitious and outlandish of the bunch, "Fatty" as he's called, is a villain straight out of a Bond movie, complete with detachable artificial legs, but even he finds his age and experience are less of a match than he thinks for youth, naïveté, and unadulterated recklessness.
The story isn't what makes the movie exceptional, but the way its pieces have all been marshaled by the director, Shinji Sōmai. Sōmai was an assistant director on many Art Theatre Guild projects, the indie movie company that used low budgets, high concepts, and outré imagery to great effect through the late Sixties and Seventies. He put together SS&MG more as if it were were an ATG project, not a pop-idol vehicle (as Hiroko Yakushimaru became one for a time on the strength of this movie's success). The camera always finds some odd, striking way to look in on the action — often from a distance, via zoom lenses, or through windows, or via quasi-documentary handheld camerawork that breaks up the stasis of scenes that otherwise would be talky and static. Only in retrospect do we realize just how precise and controlled the camera movements have been in every shot, even the ones that ought to be throwaways. It takes what could have been a routine project and turns it into something special.
I'm emphasizing this because it's always struck me how flat and unimaginative too many movies end up looking, even (and sometimes especially) films that have nine-figure budgets. When they aren't a slurry of rapid-fire edits, they're a bunch of dull matching-eyeline shots. All the brainpower for making them look interesting is burned up in the effects sequences. SS&MG probably cost what it took to make the credits for one of the Marvel films, but every sequence, every shot in it, has some kind of style. Early in the film there's an extended sequence where Izumi goes out and gets drunk with her new gangster friends (and some classmates who get roped into the action), and then roars off on the back of Sakuma's motorcycle, a testament to the personal recklessness she's developing in the face of growing danger. It's all done in one unbroken shot, something that only comes to us after the scene has been unfolding for several minutes. Even the little moments get handled with experimental flair, as when a hung-over Izumi slides and tumbles across the furniture.
SS&MG wasn't Hiroko Yakushimaru's first film — she'd previously appeared in a couple of other movies, including School In The Crosshairs, another cult item — but it kicked her long, fruitful career as both actress and musician into high gear. J-film cult fans also remember her as the princess in Kinji Fukasaku's wild Satomi Hakkenden. She was seventeen when she made this film, and her gangly teenage presence and moon-faced bewilderment are all spot-on for the role. This isn't one of those movies where they say "teenager" and we see an actor who looks near twenty-five. It adds even more impact for the way she cuts loose, both here and there in the first two-thirds of the film, and all the way and beyond at the end.
* A moment that compares favorably in pop-culture cachet to, say, Arnold Schwartzenegger's line "Hasta la vista, baby", and one about as one widely referenced. Fans of Kill La Kill, for instance, may remember Mako also uttering this phrase when given a machine gun of her own.