An elderly yakuza boss passes away declaring his estranged nephew, a travelling salesman, will succeed him as leader of the Medaka gang. But it turns out his nephew died in a hit-and-run accident. Tradition dictates the title passes to the next surviving relative, who happens to be Izumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru), a perky teenage schoolgirl whom we first glimpse literally bent over backwards, staring at the sky, singing a dreamy tune. Izumi has enough problems given her late father's kooky mistress Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri) has made herself a permanent houseguest but proves somewhat alarmed along with fellow pupils and teachers when more than a dozen yakuza assemble at the school gates to pay homage. At first Izumi proves understandably reluctant to assume the mantle of yakuza boss but when Sakuma (Tsunehiko Watase), the stalwart right-hand man, and young subordinates Masa (Masaaki Daimon), Akira (Toshiya Sakai) and Hiko (Shinpei Hayashiya) reveal that the Medaka gang are in dire straits, she has a change of heart. Her attempts to carve a new rep for her yakuza boys aren't helped by the fact none of their rivals, including nasty Sekine (Masako Sato) take her seriously. Things grow worse when a nefarious underworld kingpin known only as "Fatso" somehow comes to believe Izumi is in possession of a stolen, valuable cache of heroin.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is almost unknown internationally but became one of the biggest Japanese blockbusters of the Eighties. It was another notable success for Haruki Kadokawa, the controversial producer and multi-media mogul behind several of the highest-grossing films at the domestic box office. One of the chief reasons behind its popularity was the nationwide obsession with teen star Hiroko Yakushimaru. When she appeared at the film's premiere in Osaka, more than three thousand fans swarmed the streets until city officials called out the riot police. Kadokawa discovered Yakushimaru during a nationwide talent search for the lead role in his hit action thriller Proof of the Wild (1978) a.k.a. Never Let Go. Asked to imitate the sexy dance moves of popular J-pop duo Pink Lady, Yakushimaru's flat refusal - the only one among a thousand contenders - marked her out as someone special. She went on to headline a string of successful films for the Kadokawa stable including Private Detective Story (1983) and Legend of the Eight Samurai (1984). In later years, maturing beyond her teen idol image, Yakushimaru won the Japanese academy award for best supporting actress in the hugely popular Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005) and was nominated as best actress for its sequel in 2007.
Based on a quirky cult novel by prolific author Tozo Tanaka, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun has the ingredients for a lively comic romp along the lines of the Korean comedy-action film My Wife is a Gangster which became an Asian phenomenon and spawned sequels co-produced in Japan and Hong Kong. But although partly satirical, the tone is nowhere as outrageous as the comedic concept suggests. Instead the film offers an odd combination of tragi-comic farce, deadly serious thriller and borderline avant-garde drama, far from your typical teen idol fare. Shinji Somai, who had directed Yakushimaru in the earlier romance Tonda Couple (1980), opts for a curiously detached style midway between fly-on-the-wall documentary and a stage play, often restricting his camera to a distant master shot or framing the action from a vertiginous height. Which is not to say the film lacks visual invention. Far from it. Director of photography Seizo Sengen includes a fascinating fisheye lens tracking shot from the POV of corrupt cop Kuroki (Akira Emoto) as he investigates Izumi's burgled apartment, along with some audacious and complex cinematography.
Although Somai exhibits no great aptitude for comedy and makes a right hash of the action scenes (often filming combatants from behind), the terrific cast including the effervescent Yakushimaru and seasoned yakuza film star Tsunehiko Watase hit every emotional beat along an offbeat but surprisingly affecting journey. In the Eighties the bubbly, sailor-suited schoolgirl became a symbol of Japan's booming economy, in stark contrast to the Seventies malaise embodied by the macho, moody yakuza. Sailor Suit and Machine Gun brings these two totemic figures together to ring the changing times. Real yakuza popularised the romanticised image of themselves as the men who did the dirty, grunt work that sparked to spark the economic miracle from which the young generation reaped the benefits. Many middle-aged Japanese seemed to resent the young for their perceived frivolity and lack of responsibility. Hence a large part of the plot involves happy-go-lucky Izumi learning the value of self-sacrifice and responsibility as she weaves through the tricky rules and rituals of the yakuza code, handling complex negotiations and business deals. She gradually grows in stature till her yakuza underlings come to regard her as their substitute mother figure, doting on her every whim as the film becomes almost Snow White in reverse.
The film makes no moral judgement on the gangsters' activities but does acknowledge that a yakuza's life is brief, dangerous and even futile as sympathetic characters start dropping like flies. Whilst the subplot involving the inscrutable Mayumi (who comes across emotionally detached to the point of seeming bipolar) is hard to get a handle on, all becomes clear when events take a turn for the surreal. Izumi finally encounters the elusive Fatso, a legless war amputee-cum-mad scientist (!) who imprisons her in an underground lair beneath a Buddhist temple and binds her to a giant crucifix for machinegun practice. Although it seems to have come from a completely different movie, this sequence with its strange, distorted gothic sets styled after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) emerges a definite highpoint.
Scripter Jiro Akagawa weaves a surprisingly solid and complex mystery culminating in the outrageous finale wherein a sailor suit clad Izumi blasts the bad guys away with her machinegun whilst mouthing the Japanese word for "ecstasy!" However, the melancholy finale implies the yakuza way of life is best consigned to the past and features a strange allusion to an iconic scene involving Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Charming disco score by Katz Hoshi with the theme song performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru herself. Sailor Suit and Machinegun spawned a television series in 1982 starring Tomoyo Harada, another hugely popular Kadokawa starlet, and a remake in 2006 but the original remains the one to see.