Cornerstone 2007, Day 2: Kamikaze Girls, Darkon & Starflyer 59

Thursday kicked off with another batch of Haibane Renmei, followed by what might possibly be the most surreal film ever screened at Cornerstone. I don’t know that for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Kamikaze Girls more than lives up its name; it’s a reckless, absurd — and oftentimes, laugh out loud hilarious — jaunt through Japanese pop culture.

On the one hand, you’ve got Momoko, a young Japanese woman obsessed with the Rococo period of French history. Disgusted by the rest of the uncouth folks in her town, she has taken to living as dainty and fanciful a life as possible, wearing frilly dresses, and taking leisurely strolls through the manure-strewn roads of her backcountry hometown. On the other hand is Ichigo, a tough-as-nails punk chick who rides her decked out scooter with the rest of her hardcore gang. Throw the two in together, and watch the sparks — and surrealism — fly.

Seriously, the film often plays out like a fever dream a la Tears of the Black Tiger or perhaps more accurately, Bangkok Loco. Kamikaze Girls is full of absurdist scenes as Momoko and Ichigo form an unlikely friendship based solely on their shared desire to be independant and unique in an otherwise conformist culture.

Afterwards, Mike and I did a sort of tag-team discussion, touching on various aspects of Japanese pop culture. Following our discussion was Paul Nethercott, who spoke on the “hikikomori” — a large group of Japanese youth who have chosen to completely isolate themselves from the rest of society, often for years at a time, by simply holing up in their room.

Then it was time for the film about American “otaku” — Darkon. I’d seen the trailer a few months ago, and was instantly intrigued.

Darkon follows a group of individuals who participate in live-action role-playing. Rather than roll dice in “Dungeons & Dragons” or click the mouse in “World Of Warcraft”, these people dress up in suits of armor, pledge allegiances to fictional countries with complete political, social, and religious structures, and engage in full-size battles down at the local soccer field.

It’d be so easy to present these folks as mere oddballs, but Darkon is better than that. True, there are some people for whom the game is potentially problematic, but for most of the people, the game seems to be a truly positive thing in their lives. The film certainly raises a number of intriguing questions about our need for fantasy, as well as the tenuous connections that exist between “fantasy” and “reality”.

Aside from all of that, Darkon is just a lot of fun. The filmmakers present the group’s many battles in an epic manner, complete with sweeping crane shots and soaring orchestral scores — which both underscores the amateurishness of their antics while also treating it with a certain measure of gravitas that I personally found gratifying.

Also, the disparity between the fantasy and reality is sometimes humorous — such as when the players are seen unloading their armor and weapons from the back of the family minivan — and sometimes poignant — more than one individual touches on the fact that their real lives leave them feeling like worthless cogs, and it’s only through the game that they experience any sort of community or camaraderie. But it’s always respectful and sympathetic. And maybe it’s just the inner twelve-year-old speaking, but much of the time, I found myself wanting to strap on some homemade armor, grab my foam rubber sword, and slay a couple of dark elves for myself.

The final film I saw was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future. Actually, since I’d seen in several times before, Renae and I ducked out briefly to grab some dinner. Afterwards was yet another fascinating discussion, touching on topics ranging from the alienation of modern society to the peculiar set of social and economic conditions that makes modern Japan such an alienated and troubled society.

Later that night, we caught our first concert. Starflyer 59 has always been a Cornerstone mainstay. Unfortunately, the “real” band — which was just Jason Martin and Trey Many — experienced a number of technical difficulties with their “fake” band (i.e. Trey’s PowerBook). And so we left after just a few songs that spanned much of the band’s catalog.