Tokyo Mukokuseki Shojo (Japan 2015)

Rating: ***
Alternate Title: Nowhere Girl
Review Date: 12/6/15
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Cast: Nana Seino

Mamoru Oshii's latest film is a meditation on PTSD, drug addiction, and mental illness. Or is it? Ai (Nana Seino) is a brilliant young art student who is suffering from an undisclosed traumatic incident. In an attempt to rehabilitate her, the school's headmaster gives her free rein to work on a personal project, and her special treatment generates resentment in her peers and teachers. An addiction to tranquilizers keeps Ai in a catatonic state and fuels her paranoid hallucinations, and her classmates regularly torment and bully her. But something isn't right in Ai's world, and the film becomes increasingly strange right up to the point where her mind literally breaks. At this point, the film radically shifts gears as Ai picks up an assault rifle and single-handedly destroys a group of Russian (?) soldiers that have taken over the school. The ten minute climax is an astonishing outburst of stylistic violence that highlights Nana Seino's superb skills as an action actress, and represents one of the best "girls with guns" moments I've ever witnessed. The resolution is purposely vague, leaving it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

As with any Oshii film, the biggest challenge is trying to figure out what he's trying to say. The lack of subtitles makes the film almost completely impenetrable, although most of the clues surrounding the mystery of Ai are purely visual. Typical of Oshii's work, the pacing is painstakingly slow, and scenes are tediously drawn out to the point of discomfort. The amount of silence, stillness, and negative space is suffocating, but the film remains engaging due to Oshii's visionary skill and the talented cast. Naturally, there's also an overly long sequence of Ai eating, which satisfies Oshii's bizarre food fetish. The music score utilizes classical pieces from Mozart, which reinforces the cultured environment of the art school, and adds a dreamlike quality to the hard hitting action scenes.

Nana Seino delivers an excellent performance as the emotionally fragile Ai. She looks exceedingly plain and vulnerable, and her emotional turmoil and mental anguish are heartfelt and incredibly convincing. However, I suspect the real reason she was cast was her ability to perform the intense and physically demanding action packed finale, which appears to be all her and not a stunt double. It's a shocking and extremely effective display of brutal close quarters combat, and Seino's knife work is impressively fluid. The choreography and execution are superb, and the action is lovingly captured by smooth camera work and thoughtful editing. Oshii doesn't skimp on the action scenes, and makes sure that the audience gets to see, hear, and feel everything.

It's definitely a challenging film to watch, but the pay-off is worth it if you have the patience to endure the entire first hour of vague exposition. The film is a puzzle and demands multiple viewings in order to fit the pieces together. Oshii hands out clues and symbols at a steady pace, but it's up to the viewer to interpret their meaning and to decide what's real and what's not. I initially found the film to be tiresome and needlessly convoluted, but the riveting climax and epilogue forced me to re-evaluate and gave me a lot to think about. It's certainly not going to appeal to everyone, but those who like their female action films laced with a heavy dose of high art and philosophical contemplation should find it worthwhile.