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Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Shinji Somai, 1981)

Critics often lament the fact that Shinji Somai (1948–2001) became a director in the 1980s, when Japan’s surging bubble economy displaced the golden-age studio system. As a result, he was ignored by Western cinephiles who spurned the highly commercial films he made (often to promote teen idols) at the behest of ambitious businessmen like publisher and producer Haruki Kadokawa. What is omitted from this narrative of a crassly consumerist “lost decade” in Japanese film is that Somai knew how to both work within the constraints of the industry and push back against its ethos of disposability. Many of the films in “Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai”—his first North American retrospective, running from April 28 to May 13 at the Japan Society in New York—were transparently designed to appeal to the youth, capturing both the timelessness of adolescence and the inevitability of its passing. The fantasy of somehow escaping the currents of time and thus the expectations of society—a theme that, as scholar and programmer Alexander Zahlten has noted, is found throughout Japanese pop culture during the ’80s—is taken up by Somai as a form of resistance against the whirlwind of a rapidly changing media landscape.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981), a breakout work for Somai and its lead actress, Japanese idol Hiroko Yakushimaru, exemplifies the distinctive blend of realism and absurdism in his films. Its title invokes the cherubic schoolgirl Izumi Hoshi (Yakushimaru)—the “sailor suit”—and the yakuza clan, or “machine gun,” she inherits from her gang-leader father. A self-conscious farce that is both childish and epic, the film allegorizes the tensions and contradictions of Japan’s idol culture. Izumi wields outsize power over the gangsters of the seedy world she is thrust into, but is still, as a young girl, uniquely susceptible to their violence. Likewise, Yakushimaru became adored across the country, but within a system that relentlessly commodified her image. Through her character, Somai shows how the sexualized allure of the teen idol is the source of both power and powerlessness, perhaps inadvertently reflecting on his own role as a director in a celebrity economy built on pushing young girls into stardom. In a position of authority yet beholden to the demands of his industry, he stands in for the men Izumi/Yakushimaru controls and the men who threaten her, too.

Somai tends to indulge in caricature, making characters readable through surface elements like outfits and exaggerated mannerisms. In doing so, he represents the structures and assumptions imposed on them by others. Combined with his frequent use of long takes, this creates a space where everyday life is transformed into scenes of tempestuous struggle between and against archetypes. Typhoon Club (1985), which follows a group of middle-school students through the days before, during, and after a typhoon, shows the invigorating results of this approach. When the disaster strikes, the students end up stranded, for varying reasons, in their evacuated school, where they stage a kind of occupation. The storm disrupts the regimented routine of the students’ lives, destroying not just the spaces of childhood but also its sense of time: with the rules that govern them in a state of suspension, they are forced to reconsider their sense of self. In an iconic long take, they strip out of their uniforms and dance in their gymnasium. But this is no utopia: the film is at times jarringly violent, with tonally ambiguous scenes of vicious bullying that leave us unsure whether to laugh or be horrified.

Not all of Somai’s films tackle youth-oriented themes. Love Hotel (1985), a Nikkatsu roman porno (or “pink film”), might be the apotheosis of Somai’s long-take style. It opens with two scenes of sexual assault. A man in deep debt to loan sharks is made to witness the rape of his wife as punishment, which causes him to suffer a mental breakdown. He then attempts to rape and murder a call girl at a love hotel, but is unable to go through with it. Two years later, the man and the call girl meet again. For a film meant to arouse, Love Hotel is unusually gloomy and laden with malaise, its characters moving as if trapped in strange rituals, unable to exercise control over their own lives or desires. That the film returns again and again to compulsory sex scenes to fulfill its porno mandate further reinforces the sensation of being drawn ineluctably and somewhat fatalistically toward lust, while the incantatory lyrics of Momoe Yamaguchi’s jazz ballad “Into The Night,” which plays during a key scene, invoke images of prayer and repentance.

Despite the implications of the setup, Love Hotel isn’t really about a man seeking forgiveness, but about the pursuit of a perverse desire to seek one’s own damnation through a repetition of the past. If Somai saw in children the potential to escape from or transcend history, for the adults in his films, that opportunity is long gone. In a Somai picture, growing up often means entrapment in generational cycles of trauma and abuse. By the release of Tokyo Heaven (1990), the most recent film in the “Rites of Passage” series, Japan’s economic bubble had catastrophically burst, and the country was heading into a severe financial crisis. The economic miracle had dissipated into a sense of listlessness, haunted by the idea of what could have been. Mirroring this trajectory, Tokyo Heaven plays out like the inverse of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. Instead of elevating a schoolgirl to power, it brings a recently deceased teen idol back down to Earth so that she can be reincarnated as an ordinary girl. The tragedy, of course, is that only through fantasy can we recover the time we wasted chasing spurious dreams. And yet there is no choice but to try to go on living.

Emerson Goo is a writer, film programmer, and landscape designer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.