GIRLS FOR KEEPS (whose Japanese title is the Japanese phonetic representation of 'Girl') is something a little bit out of my comfort zone. It’s a through and through chick flick that caught my curiosity because it is adapted from a novel by Hideo Okuda (whose infamous LALA PIPO shines an unexpected beam of light out from an extremely dark and raunchy societal landscape). Before I get into the film, I’ll preface by saying that while my eyes were initially doing barrel rolls, it won me over with its strong performances and earnest pro-female proclamations.
The film starts with a sequence that is striking in its dead-on reference to Sex and the City: a loud boisterous voice-over from one of the main characters, Yukiko, about her love of fashion (sure to set off Carrie comparisons) is set to noticeably American contempo-pop music blaring in the background. The movie’s focus on her and 3 female friends will likely draw even more comparisons to the seminal HBO show. Be prepared, however, for some much appreciated wrinkles in the formula.
What the women share in common is that they are in their 30’s, or in the case of Yukiko, 29 and almost there -- an important factor in what the movie depicts to be an extremely age-conscious urban Japan. When Yukiko joins the other women, all with their own stories, at a restaurant for a birthday celebration, they decide to tell Yukiko that it is time for her to grow up in both her appearance and manner. And so begins her soul searching over an image she has long been comfortable with, as well as each of the other friends’ stories, filled with struggles over work, family, and yes finding love.
Along with Yukiko, a campaign planner for an advertising agency, there is Seiko, a recently promoted executive for a city planning and developing firm. Takako is a single mom whose mind is often occupied with doing right by her son. And last of all, Yoko is another white collar worker who is conscious of the difficulty of landing a mate in light of younger competition, a situation that is made more apparent when she is assigned to mentor a very desirable (to all of the women in the office) new male employee.
For the women in the story, the combination of their age and gender present one sort of challenge or another. While Yukiko and Seiko both have long term relationships, they face the hardships of holding nominal influences in their jobs. Yukiko finds that her designs are not taken seriously by senior members of her company. She ends up reporting to a younger superior with something of a vendetta for the way she and other 30-something women dress in frilly clothes and refer to themselves as ‘girls.’ At the same time, she grows increasingly frustrated with a longtime boyfriend whose efforts to make her feel special are humorously lacking. An impulse to demand more is met with the nagging voice of a co-worker that at her age, she’d be better off just settling for the relationship she has. Seiko is undermined by a system that does not take women seriously as leaders, to the point where her work is sabotaged by an arrogant male subordinate, while at the same time forced to watch a new female employee be trivialized in spite of her talent.
While they occasionally see each other, lament, and give advice over their situations, the stories are really each one’s own. Their struggles are documented through situations that at times are humorous, and others humiliating. Yukiko, with the help of a livelier and more self-assured colleague, stands up for her vision of a critical fashion promotion, while at the same time putting up with her longtime boyfriend’s routines, slowly growing in her demands for better treatment. Seiko navigates her increasingly hostile work environment, steadying her resolve for an inevitable boardroom battle to prove the competence of herself and a sympathetic subordinate. Less in the foreground are the stories of Yoko and Takako, yet their tales also have poignant moments. In one scene that bears a great moment of awkward humor, Yoko returns home after work to find her family clandestinely celebrating her younger sister’s engagement. “You don’t have to hide it from me. I can find a mate for myself,” she insists as she open a beer, but the cracks in her resolve are apparent. For Takako, a simple gesture like teaching her son to flip over the monkey bars is a testament to her devotion to her son, yet at the same time the fretting she does over this shows her insecurities over being an adequate parental presence in his life.
The further along the film goes, the more it sheds away the Sex and the City comparisons -- aside from the important common ground that this about strong, independent women. All of them are, even the more bubbly Yukiko; if they weren’t, they would not be able to face the uphill struggles society has thrown at them. A big distinction between this movie and its American predecessor is that there is no focus on saucy exploits here. The protagonist in Girls... are not trying to get their rocks off. Rather, they seek to establish a positive identity, equity in a world that sends an overbearing message that they should remain complacent in a marginalized position. I can also say with certainty that, as little familiarity as I have with the Sex and the City franchise, I know enough about the movies to say that Girls... is far more grounded in reality. No, here there are absolutely no trips to luxurious wedding parties held in Dubai.
As far as performances go, Kumiko Asou (who was also in one of the big features of this year’s Japan Cuts, Love Strikes!) is captivating as a headstrong, indignant businesswoman. This is fitting, as her confrontation with an overwhelmingly chauvinistic foe makes her story the most emotionally charged of the bunch.
While it espouses a cause we can get behind, the movie is not without some factors to take into consideration. For one, this is a decidedly pop affair, with moments that some might find overly sappy. Considering Fukuda’s other written work, it leaves me wondering if there was not in fact edgier, less tactful dialogue to begin with that was later prettied up. On a more technical note, In moving between four stories, there are long stretches of time dedicated to two of them, with the others left out of the picture. It is enough to sometimes take you out of the loop of the other characters’ stories and lessen their impact. In fact the original novel was structured as a set of short stories, so combining them into one may have been a challenge. And all the while it must be acknowledged, the cuts back and forth between the crucial events in Yukiko and Seiko’s stories near the movie’s finale was masterfully and movingly edited together.
In fact all of the main characters’ final resolutions and realizations struck a chord with me. I was truly won over. The more i think about the ground covered, the more impressed i am that from within a social climate that is still marked by serious imbalance, a film like this comes along to both entertain and address those issues.
Whether or not you can relate, Girls For Keeps offers a genuine look at the challenges and complexities of womanhood, while channeling a powerful shot of positive girl power. An unapologetic chick flick, proceed accordingly.
Girls For Keeps receives its international premiere (first screening outside of Japan!) as part of the Japan Cuts festival, taking place at the Japan Society, Wednesday July 18, at 7:30 PM.
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