A Look at Japanese Girl-Buddies

I’m a sucker for a buddy movie. Stick two people, who either are best friends already or learn to be BFFLs, in a movie, preferably on a road trip, and chances are I’ll end up watching it and probably liking it. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many buddy movies that feature female best friends. Usually in movies, women have an adversarial relationship to their friends, or the friends are there to help them cope when they’re between boyfriends. Few movies put female best friendship at the forefront, instead assuming that, between women, friendship is expendable, or at least not the top of the priority list.

So, when someone sat me down and put 2004’s Kamikaze Girls on the TV, I had mixed feelings about how it was going to go. On one hand, I thought: Buddies! Buddies! Girl buddies! Yay! On the other, I was concerned because, in my (admittedly limited) experience, Japanese movies don’t necessarily have the best track record with women. But, luckily, my fears were proven wrong.

Kamikaze Girls follows a small-town teenage girl named Momoko who dresses in Lolita fashion and meets an unlikely new friend, a hot-tempered Yanki called Ichiko. The film, which is based on Novala Takemoto’s novel, follows a well-worn plot-line: two people, total opposites, begin with a rocky relationship that, through the joint overcoming of obstacles, becomes a close relationship. Momoko and Ichiko even ride off into the sunset on Ichiko’s motorcycle.

The film is funny, weird, touching, and thoroughly enjoyable. But above all, it shows that friendship between women is valuable and important. Men never come between Momoko and Ichiko. No one can, not even the all-female bike gang Ichiko becomes estranged from. They end the film by kicking ass, just the two of them against the whole gang. At the end of the movie, you know Ichiko and Momoko will be best friends beyond the credits, happily a part of each other’s lives.

Unfortunately, that assurance isn’t present in the anime Nana, another story of female buddies. (Note: Nana was based on a manga and also turned into a live-action movie. My comments are only about the anime, as I haven’t read the manga or seen the movie.) In Nana, the two girls, both named Nana (conveniently one of them is given the nickname Hachiko to avoid confusion), meet through a series of coincidences and end up sharing an apartment together. The two are also very different, Nana being the hot-tempered punk rocker who dreams of being a famous singer and Hachiko the adorable ex-art student who really only wants to take care of people.

There are many problems with the anime. Hachiko is too much the typical burden-bearing woman: she thinks she is being selfish when she, for once, does something she wants, she allows herself to be used by men and blames herself instead of them, etc. Nana is less problematic, because she wants success on her own terms and through her own hard work, but never becomes cruel, like too many motivated TV-women. The problem with Nana is mostly that she, for some weird reason, can’t dump her pretty heartless boyfriend. Various characters also mock her inability to cook, and say she isn’t feminine because she’s tough.

Regardless of its faults, not only is Nana entertaining, but it does delve into the complexities of friendship, including how friends can become possessive of each other. Without it being anyone’s fault, sometimes, as seen in Nana, boyfriends and drama get in the way of friendship. When things get in the way of Nana and her boyfriend, it hurts, but it doesn’t seem to consume her the way obstacles between her and Hachiko do. Nana’s dream of becoming a singer are amplified by Hachiko’s support. Hachiko, for a little while anyway, stops letting men use her because she is empowered by Nana’s friendship and their mutual love.

At the end of Nana, Nana and Hachiko don’t get together again, after being separated by so much drama I can’t even explain it briefly in this post. The reason why they stay separated is one of the many threads that don’t really come together at the end, which makes me wonder if the ending really was cobbled together last-minute. There isn’t a good reason why Nana and Hachiko can’t be best friends in their daily lives, rather than from a distance. If the anime had ended earlier, it probably wouldn’t have been so disappointing.

Despite the big let-down at the end, I’m glad I watched Nana. Not only is it nice to have anime where the boobs aren’t so prominent they should be their own characters (I’m talking to you, Witchblade), but it’s nice that Nana, though traditional in many ways, was also a little non-traditional. Though they aren’t together in the end, they also never fought amongst each other. It’s not their cattiness that keeps them apart, but the cosmic awfulness of the universe. You get the idea that they should be together, and regret that they aren’t. Though it’s less obvious than in Kamikaze Girls, even Nana shows us that best friendship between women is full of love, not backstabbing, and something valuable that all women should want.

-Joanna

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