The OL, or “office lady” (female office clerk), has long been pop culture fodder in Japan. Back in the glorious bubble era days of the late 1980s and early ’90s, manga artist Yutsuko Chusonji had a hit with “Sweet Spot,” a comic in the male-targeted Spa! magazine whose heroines were so-called “oyaji gyaru” — OLs who played golf, swilled whiskey and enjoyed other pursuits then considered the purview of oyaji (middle-aged men).

Though the oyaji gyaru had some basis in reality, Kazuaki Seki’s comedy “Office Royale” zooms off into a two-fisted fantasyland that makes Chusonji’s cheeky creations look like tight-skirted wimps. The result is often hilarious, though the gender politics can be dubious.

The film’s heroine, Naoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano), is a 26-year-old working for a big company riven with factions among its OL ranks. Three of them, however, give new meaning to the term “corporate infighting” since they consist of yankī, that is, grown-up delinquents brawling for bragging rights as No. 1 on their corporate turf. Among the leaders is Shuri (Nanao), tall and resplendent in long, snake-like braids and scary black eyeliner.

Office Royale (Jigoku no Hanazono)
Run Time 102 min.
Language Japanese
Opens May 21

Meanwhile, Naoko and her OL pals studiously ignore the pitched battles among their yankī co-workers, which seem to be unfolding in another dimension apart from the peaceful routine of “normal” OL life, with its chitchat about diets and TV dramas.

A new hire, the fierce-eyed Ran (Alice Hirose), becomes Naoko’s close friend, but soon reveals herself as the toughest yankī of them all, lording it over her defeated opponents in a spiffy sukajan, a type of decorated blouse-jacket long favored by anti-social types.

By this time, I was starting to wonder when or whether Naoko’s story was going to get underway. Also, in a voiceover, she herself worries that she may be relegated to “best friend of the heroine” status, as per manga convention.

But beneath Naoko’s mild-mannered front, we learn, is a steely sort who can stand up to not only her yankī colleagues, but also a rival clique from another company headed by a towering OL (Kenichi Endo) whose look is seemingly inspired by Tina Turner circa 1985, flame-colored wig included. But even Naoko quails when she encounters a mysterious silver-haired battler (Eiko Koike) who claims to be the most fearsome OL in Japan.

Played straight as a brawling contest for OL supremacy, this story would have become tedious after the joke of kick-ass OLs wore thin. But the original script by comedian Bakarhythm weaves in laugh-worthy meta commentary by Naoko and Ran on the manga-esque plot developments, as well as back stories for the two leads that give their characters more motivation than simple king-of-the-hill ego inflation.

The OLs, however, rarely use their fighting skills on skeevy guys who deserve a thrashing. (Most of the salarymen we see are nice to a fault.) Also they do not kick against the limits on their careers set by their lowly OL status. And three of the strongest OLs are played by guys in drag, which makes for uncomfortable viewing when an unmistakably male fist makes contact with a woman’s jaw.

Finally, for reasons I won’t reveal, the ending trades on stereotypes that undermines the film’s girl-power theme, though I read it as yet another example of the film’s sly meta humor. The ultimate message of “Office Royale”: Make funny, not war.

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