It’s strange how quickly time flies. Looking back, the surreal and challenging days of the pandemic may appear merely a distant, vague memory to the mind. Those years of global lockdown and uncertainty seem to be entirely behind us — or, at least, for now — but its signs and effects still manifest themselves, sometimes quite randomly, in new films. Set in an all-girls high school in a present-day Tokyo governed by various health protocols, Shinichi Fujita’s Mayhem Girls follows a group of students who are apparently lost and confused in this bizarre situation while restlessly dealing with their mundane dilemmas and discomforts. On the one hand, we see the girls’ everyday obsessive engagements with smartphones and social media; on the other hand, these engagements are all entangled in a world constantly marked by the presence of masks, sanitizers, and social distancing.
Right before the film’s strange situation gets even stranger, the bewitching but timidly aloof Mizuho (Mizuki Yoshida) suddenly realizes that she has, through her adolescent hormonal changes, unintentionally developed supernatural powers. But unlike in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Mizuho doesn’t have to endure this alone, as she is eventually accompanied by three other schoolmates who all have manifested singularly peculiar powers. The seminal idea here is obvious and simple: Mayhem Girls, first and foremost, is the depiction of sorority bonds amidst imposed social alienation, as well as a statement on the importance of young girls embracing their womanhood as a magnificent gift and means to personal liberation. At least, that’s what it is before the final turn of events, where the foursome are forced to contend with the old moral chestnut: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
From an artistic standpoint, Fujita’s low-key and minimalistic style speaks to an effortless attention to imagery that’s so familiar in many contemporary Japanese films. In its early going, Mayhem Girls plays as a typical, lo-fi work of realism, with unadorned visual compositions and overexposed natural daylight, reminiscent of simple videography. But it’s actually after that, in parallel with the film’s narrative development, that Fujita withdraws more and more from this realism as the characters become attuned to their eccentric abilities. From this point, Mayhem Girls revels in a certain carefree kitsch, completing its evolution from the first stretch’s situational cringe-comedy origins. Mayhem Girls treats viewers to an uneven hodgepodge of low-budget VFX, visual lyricism, and B-movie sentiment, all imbued with a cartoonish atmosphere (likely derived from anime) and even some tender moments punctuated by the film’s ambient soundtrack), with even occasional and thoroughly unexpected winks to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
The main problem with Mayhem Girls, then, lies in its thin screenplay, which easily devolves into repetition by the midway point, both in terms of its aimless narrative — the girls spend an inordinate amount of screentime trying to explain their powers to both one another and the audience — and cheap visual gimmicks, mostly comprised of scenes where the girls are shown hovering or flying through the air. It’s hard to deny the easy appeal of Mayhem Girls’ playful spirit, but it’s all spread too thin across the film’s 98 minutes. The final product ultimately feels like an overextended short, which in turn lowers the ceiling on Fujita’s attempt at zany entertainment and prevents the film from fully unleashing its own potential power.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2023.