‘Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation’ hits all the wrong targets


Special To The Japan Times

Films about women in the yakuza world are many but real female gangsters are few, including women who inherit gang leadership from a husband or male relative.

In Shinji Somai’s 1981 film “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun” (“Sera-fuku to Kikanju”), this rare scenario entered the realm of pure fantasy. Based on Jiro Akagawa’s 1978 novel of the same name, the film stars pop idol Hiroko Yakushimaru as a high school girl who finds herself in charge of a four-man gang after the death of her gang-boss father. The scene of her spraying rival hoods with a machine gun and drawling “Kaikan” (“This feels so good”) became notorious and helped make the film a big hit.

More than three decades later, we now have Koji Maeda’s “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation” (“Sera-fuku to Ki-kanju: Sotsugyo),” an odd concoction of coming-of-age teen drama and blood-spattered gang actioner that shares little with the original beyond its premise.

Izumi Hoshi (Kanna Hashimoto, of the J-pop group Rev. from DVL) looks to be an average-enough teen while walking home from school. That changes when she turns down a decaying shopping arcade and everyone greets her, including three gangster types at a small cafe who keep calling her kumichō (boss), even when she tells them it’s tenchō (manager).

The explanation: When her beloved uncle — the boss of the Medaka Gang — was killed by a hit man, she was anointed his successor, though she didn’t even know what his real profession was. With her mother dead and her father missing, she is now alone in the world, save for the three loyal underlings-cum-employees of her Medaka Cafe.

The Medakas are now disbanded, a condition of the peace pact they concluded with their larger rival, the Hamaguchi Gang. But when an anxious classmate being scouted by a sketchy “modeling agency” asks for help, Izumi and her three “employees” learn the agency is recruiting girls for the sex trade — and that the Hamaguchis are behind it. Even worse, they also discover their old rivals are running cookies spiked with drugs. After Izumi witnesses the death of a classmate who ingested one, she decides enough is enough.

But Izumi is also up against Yasui (Masanobu Ando), a ruthless young gang boss with a slick corporate front who is scheming to take over not only the Hamaguchis’ territory but the economy of the entire town.

What began as a semi-comic tale of a spunky girl setting out to right wrongs becomes an overly obvious social drama about the plight of an aging provincial backwater. At a gangster-filled club, Yasui expounds to all assembled on how the town’s selfish young have abandoned their elders to seek their fortunes elsewhere. “I’ll take care of them,” Yasui says with an evil smirk.

I half expected him to sprout horns and hooves.

In classic yakuza movies, heartless villains like Yasui eventually stir even the most pacifistic hero to action, and in this film Izumi’s friends — including a tough-but-decent ex-Hamaguchi gangster (Hiroki Hasegawa) — take up arms at the risk of their lives. Izumi herself, however, is a gangster only by accident. Her understanding of the gang code is similar to a lottery winner’s understanding of finance. Cute-but-unconvincing style, shall we say, trumps substance.

Her lack of yakuza cred infects the entire film. Even its shoot-ups look like theme park shows.

And the previous film’s most famous line? Just say fans expecting the old goodness had better lower their expectations. A more appropriate title might be “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Misfire.”