Watching his 1988 film Decisive Match! Girls Dorm Against Boys Dorm, it’s hard not to imagine what a post-Suicide Club Sion Sono would do with this premise. Today, the battle-of-the-sexes set-up would likely lead the director to make a polished film of outsized violence and exuberant melodrama, as invested in bloodshed as it is youthful romance. But Sono’s second feature only occasionally offers glimpses of the strengths the director would later become known for. Take, for example, “the Boss” (Hiromi Kawanishi), the tough-as-nails leader of the girls’ dormitory who derives menace from her eyepatch-mimicking glasses and her sensual affection for an assault rifle. Though otherwise underdeveloped, her look and demeanor would fit perfectly in Sono’s Love Exposure or Tokyo Tribe. But the Boss, as well as a general penchant for weirdness (in one scene, a toy octopus walks across a table, apropos of nothing) are the only links to Sono’s future success in a movie that instead bears all the hallmarks of the director’s pre-breakthrough period: loose narrative threading, low production values, and a self-reflexivity spurred by Sono’s own onscreen presence. As a result, the potentially explosive narrative is underserved by slapdash form, and fizzles out in a frustrating fnale.
All the hallmarks of Sono’s pre-breakthrough period: loose narrative threading, low production values, and a self-reflexivity spurred by the director’s own onscreen presence.
Under the Boss’ leadership, the denizens of the girls’ dorm plan to plant themselves in the International Women’s Marathon, as part of a plot against the boys’ dorm. The extent of their intentions beyond this remains unclear, even when the apparent plan is put into action. During the marathon, the girls run through the streets, followed by boys with toy guns, and a nauseatingly shaky camera. (Sono’s appearance as the cameraman serves only to justify the shoddy handheld work.) This is supposed to be a triumphant climax, but the lack of clarity surrounding it, and the meandering rhythm of the film in general, render the marathon emotionally affectless. More successful are scenes focused on the romantic relationships the girls form with their ostensible enemies. Much of the film in fact focuses on the breakdown of these couplings, as dorm loyalty leads to betrayal, deceit, and domestic espionage. Unfortunately, these scenes are often so underlit as to approach unwatchability. The force with which pairings are torn apart sometimes breaks through the aesthetic inscrutability enough for a moment of human pain to register, but Sono is more often content to simply linger on a solitary subject, in a state of quietude—a mundane focus at best, and sometimes a voyeuristic perversity—rather than continue exploring interpersonal dynamics. And so, as with the rest of the film, a dull aesthetic overpowers intrinsically rich material.