Mamoru Oshii's Assault Girls is slight in every sense of the word. For his first full-length live action solo endeavor in years, Oshii delivers an inconsequential bit of ponderous video game inspired fluff. Assault Girls is even a slight to Avalon, Oshii's 2001 film, with which it shares a common gaming universe. While Avalon was thoughtful, engrossing and peppered with enough action to spark the senses, Assault Girls proves to be a hollow and utterly forgettable experience.
The problems start early as 'Show, Don't Tell' is ignored so the film can tell...and tell...and tell. In fact, roughly the first 8 minutes of the film (which is only 70 minutes long) consist of a long and unnecessary section of stock footage introducing us to a world where reality has subjugated imagination. People's desires have been distilled and transferred to the world of video games. Of all the games, a particular military RPG simulator called Avalon stands out for its ability to engage players in a world of realistic and tactical warfare. The game's developers have a testing ground known as Avalon(f) where a handful of players get to test out their skills. The rest of the film follows these players as they hunt down large Dune-inspired worms known as Sand Whales.
While the massive information dump at the outset seems arbitrary, it is also the only insight we are going to get into the motives of Avalon(f)'s players. They include Gray (Meisa Kuroki), Colonel (Hinako Saeki), Lucifer (Rinko Kikuchi) and Jager (Yoshikazu Fujiki). The first three are the titular Assault Girls although Jager receives an inordinate amount of screen time considering he's the only guy in the bunch. (Side note: Would you watch a TV show called Three Assault Girls, a Guy and a Sushi Place? I'm embarrassed to say I would.) Although the ladies don't really operate as a group (at first), they seem to bear distinct characteristics that will meld nicely during their eventual team-up. Gray is the most ambitious and aggressive which sets her up in a leadership role. Colonel is the strong and silent type while Lucifer is the most playful one. While Gray and Colonel rely on a few different weapons during the film, Lucifer is unique in the way she can transform into a crow and shoot balls of energy out of her hands. Compared to the ladies, Jager almost seems old-fashioned. He refuses to spend any game credits on transportation and relies on his BFG in all Sand Whale skirmishes.
With all my talk of weapons and energy-ball shooting crow-women, you would think the film would be chock full of worm-killing action. You would be wrong. While I never expected Oshii to give us a series of easily digested action sequences, he works overtime here to give us the exact opposite. The film is so oddly paced that at times it feels like a massive joke perpetrated on the audience. After the opening dissertation, we are given a quick taste of Jager and his heavy artillery. Then...nothing. Characters walk through barren desert wastelands (Jager), strike moody poses against rocks (Colonel) and occasionally break out into a jig (Lucifer). To be fair, the girls do get together a few times to hunt Sand Whales, including the big mama known as Madara. Unfortunately these spurts of action are broken up by stretches of, you guessed it, walks through the desert, moody poses and impromptu dances. A lengthier-than-you-would-expect sequence is even dedicated to the characters interacting with a snail. While one could argue that it helps distinguish the characters from each other, I'm convinced that it is merely the punch line to Oshii's private joke.
There are flashes of wit to be found scattered throughout the film. There are plenty of nods that gamers will appreciate, especially a duel between Gray and Jager that quickly chews through a few of the latter's lives. Speaking of Gray and Jager, I'm a little surprised at how lopsided the film is in its treatment of the four main characters. Gray and Jager get the lion's share of the film's focus. In Jager's case this is especially weird, since his screen time comes at the expense of Colonel and Lucifer. Shoving aside two of the Assault Girls in their own film, weakens the eventual formation of their team. I should know more about Lucifer than her love of dance. Colonel looks good in red but what else can she do? I guess these concerns will be addressed in their next collective adventure.
Given the anemic characters they are working with, it seems silly to discuss the performances by the film's cast. The ladies look good in their battle gear and can shoot giant worms very convincingly (can you see me stretching?). At least Rinko Kikuchi manages to pack Lucifer with enough whimsy to make up for the limited demands placed on her as an actress. Yoshikazu Fujiki actually makes out like a bandit since Jager is one of the more expressive characters. While he crowds out the girls in this film, I could see his character being spun-off with little effort.
So there you have it. Mamoru Oshii has taken the idea of weapon-toting women hunting giant sand worms and made a desperately boring film. Although this movie represents a wasted opportunity, I am strangely hopeful for future adventures of the Assault Girls. The mere concept is too compelling to be undone by one disappointing film...right?