As a fan of Asian cinema there will be times where you hear about a film, probably multiple times, that you think sounds like it would be something you’d love to see, but finding a copy of it is hard, if not impossible. If you do manage to track one down it’s often a bad recording, with subtitles or a dub that haven’t been given enough care or attention; leaving you with a film that makes little sense.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is one of these films for me. I’d heard about it so many times, but had never been able to find a copy. I’d all but given up hoping to ever see it. Fortunately, Arrow Video have come through, providing an excellent new Blu-ray release for this classic film. This marks the first time that this film, or any of the films by director Shinji Sômai, has been released in the west, and it’s very much worth your attention.
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If you’ve ever been left anything in someone’s will you’ll be aware of how strange it can be to suddenly find yourself in possession of something you’re not expecting, especially if you never thought you’d get left anything. Getting left money is a strange experience, as you have the joy of better finances whilst dealing with the grief of losing a loved one, and being left items can be odd because you’ve got to work out whether you want to keep them or sell them on. But I don’t think anyone has ever inherited anything as strange as high-schooler Hoshi Izumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) does, who shortly after losing her father finds out she’s inherited his Yakuza gang.
Izumi is dragged out of the world of study and tests and finds herself in command of a group of hardened criminals and killers, though only a small one to be fair. At first she rejects the offer of leading the criminal gang, but when she discovers that this means the men under her command are honour bound to go out in a blaze of glory attacking one of the bigger gangs, she agrees to lead them just to keep them from needlessly dying.
This begins a series of events that sees Izumi being expelled from school, forming friendships with her gang, and being drawn deeper and deeper into the world of organised crime. When she and her gang become the targets of a particularly sadistic rival crime boss, who thinks that Izumi has also inherited a shipment of drugs that was meant for him, Izumi and her gang find themselves fighting for their lives.
Despite the subject matter, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun isn’t really a Yakuza movie in the sense that many of the tropes of the genre are so wonderfully subverted. We’re used to seeing strong characters full of machismo, who dare not show their sensitive side for fear of having it used against them. But here we have this high-school girl being suddenly dropped into this world, and that just wouldn’t work. The men around her, the four people who make up her tiny criminal gang, are incredibly affectionate towards her. They care about her, they want her to be happy, they go out of their way to make sure that she has fun, even redecorating their shabby office into a bright and colourful place filled with comforts.
It’s clear that Izumi has an effect on the men around her, and none of them feel like the usual kind of people that you’d expect to find in a mob movie. Even her right hand man, a hardened killer and life long criminal takes on a fatherly role to her, going out of his way to make sure she’s alright. It would have been very easy to write this story where Izumi is just a figurehead, where those under her don’t respect her or listen to her, but instead she really does become their boss, and it’s rather delightful.
Of course, one of the main themes in crime movies is how power can corrupt, with decent people becoming cold hearted over time. And this does happen somewhat here, as Izumi embraces her role as a crime boss over the course of the film, making threats to other gangs, and threatening to kill people to avenge one of her fallen men. But you never get the sense that Izumi has changed, that this life has made her a bad person at all. She maintains her delight at the world and her sense of innocence, even when she’s shooting up a room with a machine gun. And this is what makes this film rather special, the very fine line it walks between a mob movie and a delightful comedy.
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Alongside the regular version of the film the new release also comes with a restored version of the ‘Complete Version’, the extended cut of the film that was released a year after the original. These extra and extended scenes are great, and make the movie a lot more fun. We also get a decent 50 minute documentary called ‘Girls, Guns, and Gangsters’ which features cast and crew of the film coming together to talk about making of the film, its director, and the legacy that the movie created.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is one of those rare, delightful movies that goes against expectations and blends genres together in ways that you don’t expect. It’s the kind of film that you don’t really get outside of Japan, and one that is shocking that it took 40 years to get a western release. Whether you’re a fan of crime movies or not this is a film that you should definitely see, even if just for the ridiculously fun premise.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.