On Friday, I saw the Noboru Iguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura and Tak Sakagucki-helmed Japanese flick Mutant Girls Squad as part of the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF.) From the synopsis, I expected a girl power-y saga of young women bonding over their new superpowers and fighting off comic book-esque villains at each other’s behest… something like X-Men meets D.E.B.S. (the latter of which I will defend until my death, and not just because of name loyalty.) Basically, I went into Mutant Girls Squad thinking it would be ridiculous and entertaining. I was half right.
WARNING: the following video includes extreme violence and enough corn-syrup blood splatter for a year’s supply of pecan pies.
Official trailer. It’s in Japanese, but there’s very little talking, and it’s pretty self-explanatory.
As it turns out, Mutant Girls Squad has more in common with The Doom Generation than Charlie’s Angels, from the cartoonish-yet-brutal violence to the disembodied (literally) talking heads to the clear intent to speak to the zeitgeist. At 90 minutes, I found it far too long and repetitive, not to mention problematic on a variety of levels.
The film is divided into three “chapters,” each of which covers a day in the life of protagonist Rin (Yumi Sugimoto). Even before faces begin exploding, there’s a palpable sense of dread and chaos. Quiet Rin begins her sixteenth birthday (yes, I know: the budding-sexuality-as-magic thesis almost writes itself here) with an ominous cramp in her hand before a morning at her nightmarish all-girls school, at which even teachers cower before violent bullies. Rin’s apparently the last to know, but she is half-Hilko, a mutant race in an era-spanning underground war with the Japanese army.
The “secret” aspect is a bit of a plot hole, being that acquaintances and passersby seem to identify Rin even before her retractable claw makes its first appearance. “Why do they allow her kind here?” whispers a schoolmate, and if this sounds like an allegory for racial discrimination, it is, albeit not a deeply explored one. Her parents break the news to her that afternoon, seconds before soldiers break in and decapitate both of them, blood spraying like fountains, and Rin begins her first slaughter. One of many lengthy fight scenes follows, in which crowds of citizens (all of whom seem to know martial arts) attack Rin, hoping to make her into a mascot with which to capitalize on the novelty of an identified mutant. At first, Rin cowers and cries “Why do you do that?” but within minutes, she’s carving rivals into the shape of baguettes.
“I will never hesitate again.”
Enter the titular Mutant Girls, an all-female, all-teenage army training to finish the war between the Hilki and the Department of Defense. The squad instructor, Kisaragi (played by director Sakaguchi) is the most gender-ambiguous character in the film and is also, troublingly, the most ruthless and the object of visual gags about erectile dysfunction and acquiring both a phallus and breasts. The blatant transphobia is worse than distracting.
Some good news: the three male directors clearly have Something To Say about gender stereotypes, particularly the ones about females being demure and cowardly. Tough members of the squad dress “ironically” as sexy maids, nurses, and cheerleaders. The first shots of the movie juxtapose still flowers with brutal attacks by Rin, ringleader Rei (Yûko Takayama) and “nurse” Yoshie (Suzuka Morita,) presumably to emphasize that blossoms and women are, um, not comparable. Their white fighting costumes look angelic in contrast to the insect-like suits worn by the Department of Defense’s warriors. The presence of television taps into camp and parody, as the trendy show for young ladies is Pick a Cute Guy While Shopping! but Rin’s reality tears through the set. In short, the absurdity of submissive or benign female stereotypes is brought into play again and again. The film is also homoerotic as all get-out; Rin and Rei especially have a sexually charged relationship that goes from combative to tender.
Rin’s claw plays music when she and Rei touch. No, seriously.
On the other hand, doesn’t this all play into other misogynistic tropes? First, there’s the obvious problem that while the actors are adults, the Mutant Girls are teenaged, and unanimously hyper-sexualized in garb and behavior. Much of the humor lies in the aforementioned irony of sweet-acting girls kicking ass, but this can be read as less subversive than cautionary against women, especially sexual ones, who get ahold of power. (At least twice, a mutant lures a rival into a kiss to destory him.) Never is this more obvious than when weapons spring from the Mutants’ breasts and genitals; while there are no vagina dentata proper, the Mutants’ sexuality is explicitly horrific and deadly. Before you can say “reclamation,” MGS can also pretty fairly be described as an endless parade of obvious rape metaphors. The deaths of the “maid” and “cheerleader” are among the most brutal, while survivors Rin and Rei remain in schoolgirl attire: still sexualized, but suggesting innocence.
Most bizarre of all is the way that the gratuitously violent splatter flick morphs into an anti-war movie in its third act. Rin is the first to realize that they are little more than pawns of their commanders, à la Hunger Games, and that there is nothing to be gained by fighting between mutants and humans. Natch, she convinces her friends of this by fighting them before they join together to murder the people still in favor of war. It’s hard to tell if this is meant to be Mutant Girls Squad’s biggest joke of all or if it’s just a way of wrapping up a story in which plot is secondary. After blood downpours beyond the point of dullness, I can’t think it’s a pacifist message on the part of the filmmakers. What’s that saying about fighting for peace?