Starring: Maki Sakai Gen Hoshino Shingo Tsurumi Kanji Tsuda Shigeru Saiki
Running time: 105 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
35-year-old director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri has enjoyed a great deal of success both at home in Japan and abroad on the festival circuit with a wide variety of films: comedies, near future science fiction, thrillers, even a baseball movie, but he's probably best known internationally for his first feature film "Kichiku dai enkai". Shot on a shoestring budget as Kumakiri's graduating project at the Osaka University of the Arts it told of the disintegration of a 1970's leftist student group after its leader dies in prison. It's hyper-violent content both repulsed and fascinated audiences and ended up winning it the Semi-Grand Prix at the 20th Annual Pia Film Festival and the Grand Prix at 1997 Taormina International Film Festival. The dismemberment and torture on display also had Kumakiri briefly lumped together with other "Asian Extreme" directors like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono, but with his 7th feature film "Nonko 36-sai (kaji-tetsudai)" (abbreviated to "Non-ko" outside of Japan) Kumakiri may have finally shrugged off the reputation of "Kichiku" by portraying the kind of multifaceted female character that is rarely seen in either Japanese cinema or cinema in general.
Every year the Japanese entertainment industry churns out dozens of "idols", young women in their late teens and early 20's whose faces and bodies are used to sell everything from ultra-kawaii pop music to energy drinks, but just as quickly as they appear on the scene they disappear. These girls are as disposable as the products they push and usually after a year they're passed on for the next model. What happens to these young women whose taste of the spotlight is so fleeting? That's the question that Kumakiri and his longtime screenwriter Takashi Ujita wanted to explore with the help of Kumakiri's favorite actress and frequent collaborator, 39-year-old Maki Sakai.
Once one of these temporary starlets, Nonko Iijima (real name Nobuko) used to show up on TV game shows dressed in bikinis and acted in roles in such cinematic masterpieces as "Babe Battles Ninja" and "Sexy Gambler", but now she's 36-years-old, separated from her manager-husband and living at home again with her parents who are custodians of a Shinto shrine outside of Tokyo. She should be helping out around the house and shrine, but most nights she's plunked down at the local bar pouring shochu down her throat and most days she's trying to recover from a hangover. Into this pitiable situation comes Masaru (Gen Hoshino), a young vendor who wants to set up a stall at the shrine so he can sell newly hatched chicks during an upcoming local festival. Nonko couldn't care less if he does or not, but Yasukawa (Kanji Tsuda), the man in charge of the festival grounds, has no desire to rent space to an outsider. Young and determined Masaru is convinced that Yasukawa is like a yakuza from his hometown, gruff and unwielding on the outside, but a decent sort at heart, so he decides to stay on until he figures he'll give in.
I think you can see where this is going. Masaru's idealism and energy doesn't do much to dull Yasukawa's resolve, but it does begin to have an effect on the disillusioned Nonko, but just because the set-up of Kumakiri's film might feel a tad formulaic the follow through and most importantly the evolution of Nonko herself isn't. While it's easy to draw parallels between Nonko and the suffering heroines of Mizoguchi and Naruse, especially after her estranged husband Udagawa (Shingo Tsurumi) shows up on the scene trying to convince Nonko that he can put her back on top again, she's hardly one of those master's downcast and genteel ladies. It does seem for a time that Nonko may become the victim, pulled and passed between the men in her life, but we quickly realize how much of a down-to-earth, scrappy survivor she is. How many of the classic female characters given life by Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Hideko Takamine do you know who'd weave drunkenly through nighttime streets on their bicycles knocking over signboards, who threw the occasional tantrum instead of mildly accepting their parents wishes and who didn't just lay back a let themselves be made love to by their male partners but fucked them right back.
There's bitterness, anger and a great deal of sadness both in Nonko the character and "Non-ko" the film, but there's a growing feeling of possibility and even hope in everything from the romantic storyline between Nonko and the young Masaru, the beautiful summery cinematography by Ryuto Kondo and the lyrical score by Akainu (another frequent Kumakiri collaborator), but in the end the fate of this former starlet lays firmly in her own hands.