Masato Harada's somewhat of an enigma. The director literally works in Los Angeles half of the year, and everytime he returns to his native Japan, he finds so many things which upset him that they invariably find their way into his films.
Written and directed by Harada, his latest film, the 1997 Bounce KoGALS (a.k.a. Leaving) takes on the issue of enjo kosai - teenage girls who prostitute themselves in order to buy branded clothes and bags. KoGals are these cool trendy teenagers and Bounce is the story of two bubbly KoGals in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Jonko leads a group of high-school girls involved in escort services. Unlike most, she doesn't sleep with her clients, preferring to use her mix of charm and guile instead. Jonko's just struck up an understanding with Oshima, a yakuza gangster who's none too pleased that high-school part-timers are threatening the underworld's traditional sex industry.
Raku is a street dancer who occasionally does some escorting. She's fallen out with Jonko earlier over the latter's methods, but both remain fond of each other. Lisa Togo, a 16-year-old girl from Sendai was brought up in the U.S. Back in Japan for almost a year, she wants to run away to New York. She's been working in a convenience store for a year to save for her trip, and her air-ticket will expire in a day's time.
Hoping to earn some fast money before flying off, Lisa stops over at Shibuya to sell her panties at a burusera shop (a fetish shop selling and buying girls' school uniforms and panties) where she agrees to feature in a video. The money will help her survive when she's in New York. Lisa meets Raku at the shoot, but things then go awfully wrong when two thugs turn up to break up the video shoot. Lisa flees with Raku, but not before losing the money she has painfully saved. Eager to help Lisa out, Raku introduces her to Jonko, and the pair head off to earn enough to finance Lisa's trip before the next day. But their plan turns awry, and the yakuza are soon after them.
Harada doesn't absolve girls like Jonko or Raku for what they do, but he reaches beyond the sensationalism to portray a kind of subculture which goes beyond loose-socks, pokeberu (pagers), cell-phones, and Gucci bags. These are girls who get together to share and giggle at each other's experiences. Beneath their cynicism, the KoGals come across as normal teenagers who happen to be more acute to the opportunities around them than their male clients. "Men are becoming more like children these days, so we become the grown-ups," Jonko argues.
In one instance, an 80-year-old war criminal proudly retells his grisly war exploits to Lisa; in another, a bureaucrat gets his kicks making the girls clean the toilet. Coming out of the station, Lisa also gets harassed by a married man old enough to be her father. Shibuya through Harada's camera comes across as a suffocating place for the teenage girls to live in, where almost every man the three girls run into - regardless of age or occupation - is either a sex pervert or an indifferent onlooker. Ironically, even Jonko's father picks up high-school girls.
The greater irony, though, is that those who do care are outcasts themselves - Oshima, a yakuza, and Sapp, a teenage punk working as a 'talent scout'. A Japanese businessman can be rotten beneath his suit and soft demeanour, while KoGals, punks and yakuzas are the ones with principles.
One might accuse Harada - who reportedly was upset by what he saw in one panty-shop - of stereotyping men in Bounce by turning them into deformed caricatures. But again, the film deals with a nation of men infamous for its lolita-complex (or loli-con, as it's called in Japan), and a city where the peddling of soft-porn featuring children as young as 12 is widespread.
"It's a scary place to live in today," Lisa counters Oshima when the yakuza lectures her. Bounce protests on behalf of these girls by shaking an angry fist against the society and media which the director sees as being equally guilty, if not totally.
Harada's compassion towards the KoGals in his film is tinged with much rue and sadness. Jonko, too headstrong for her own good, soon finds herself and her friends in trouble with the yakuzas. But one character who leaves an impression is Mura, Jonko and Raku's friend who finds it hard keeping up with the rest. The film starts with her at a clinic waiting for an abortion, and ends with the girl tragically losing her left eye after being attacked by a client. The dressing down Oshima gives Jonko later at the hospital is probably one of the high points of the film that'll stay in my mind for a while. There's nothing glamorous about the KoGal lifestyle, and ultimately it's the more reserved Lisa who teaches Jonko and Raku a thing or two about life.
For their part, the actress-trio Hitomi Sato, Yasue Sato, and Yukiko Okamoto put in memorable performances as Jonko, Raku, and Lisa respectively. The chemistry between them lends much credibility to a story hinged on the three girls' camaraderie. As it is, I ended up feeling for them, and their tearful farewell in the end was as painful for me as it probably was for them in the story. Veteran actor Koju Yakusho (Lost Paradise, Shall we Dance?) was also impressive as the somewhat fatherly yakuza Oshima.
The direction is wonderful, with the film switching seamlessly between the crowded streets of Shibuya to the seedy and claustrophobic premises where KoGals operate, and then to the serenity of the parks and temples where the girls (and the film) pause only occasionally to reflect.
This is one of Harada's best films to date. True, it lacks the action Kamikaze Taxi has on-screen, but as a social-drama, Bounce KoGALS pulls no punches, nor does it try too hard moralising the issue. It only retells the threesome's story as we follow them from one encounter to encounter. Yet when it's over, none of us can remain unaffected.
Poignant but optimistic, Bounce KoGALS is a beautiful subcultural coming-of-age film that's probably one of the best to have come out of Japan in 1997.
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