Sailor Suit & Machine Gun

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Sailor Suit & Machine Gun (1981) tells the story of Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru), a high school student, who inherits the leadership role of an old yakuza gang after her father dies. Hoshi embraces the yakuza lifestyle and is quickly embroiled in gang warfare for control of the Tokyo narcotics racket. Produced by the Toei Company from a novel by Jirō Akagawa, Sailor Suit & Machine Gun was a highly successful film in its native Japan where it inspired numerous spinoffs. In the United States and other western countries Sailor Suit & Machine Gun became a sort of cult classic after years of circulating through video stores.

The best known sequence in Sailor Suit & Machine Gun is the hallucinatory, slow motion shoot out at the climax of the film. It’s a brilliantly executed moment of demented euphoria that decides once and for all that this is Hiroko Yakushimaru’s movie. Yakushimaru’s performance and innate onscreen charisma lends Sailor Suit & Machine Gun much of its dramatic urgency and affectiveness. And while the arc of secondary character Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri) may ultimately be more relatable and cathartic, Izumi remains a powerful figure of feminine power.

Shinji Sōmai directs Sailor Suit & Machine Gun with a deliberately subversive pacing. Utilizing primarily pans and tracking shots in long takes, Sōmai grounds the outlandishness of the plot in the familiar spaces of the everyday. As the narrative persists, the images gradually erupt into fish-eyed lensed sequences and operatic set pieces. All the while the steady pacing of Sailor Suit & Machine Gun avoids the visual topes and kinetic stylizations of both the Yakuza and Sukeban film genres.

It’s the absurdity of the premise and its connection to contemporary Japanese culture as its reflection that interests Sōmai. Sailor Suit & Machine Gun is a thinly veiled metaphor for how traditional Japanese culture and values ingrain themselves in the post-modern landscape of the eighties. In many ways the plot of Sailor Suit & Machine Gun is secondary to Sōmai whose personal interpretation of the piece, executed cinematographically, parcels the narrative out in what feels more like little vignettes than actual scenes. The result is that the audience is constantly confronted with the subversion of their expectations and forced to reckon with a genre film that refuses what should be its inherent spectacle.

The poster as well as the majority of the plot synopses for Sailor Suit & Machine Gun promise something in the vein of the Sukeban genre. Sōmai’s intentional avoidance of any of the familiar trappings of that form will be disarming to most audiences. As much as that is the point of Sailor Suit & Machine Gun, Sōmai’s challenge may prove too much for some. But for those willing to embrace the text, Sōmai’s Sailor Suit & Machine Gun is more than a little rewarding.