Based on Ching Nakamura’s adult manga Gunjō, Netflix’s Ride Or Die stars Kiko Mizuhara as Rei and actor-musician Honami Sato (she’s the drummer of hip-hop/progressive band Gesu no Kiwami Otome) as Nanae – two friends with an exceedingly murky relationship. After a decade of no contact, Nanae calls Rei out of the blue. This stirs an old infatuation in Rei, a lesbian who has been in love with the straight Nanae since their prep school days. Once they meet, Nanae strips naked to reveal horrific bruises all across her body, evidence of her husband’s domestic violence. Nanae then asks Rei to murder her abusive husband, tacitly offering sex in exchange. It’s a request that Rei is happy to oblige.
With such a hard-boiled neo-noir premise as that, the last thing you’d expect Ride Or Die to be is a tenderly contemplative road trip about two friends who bond and fight over their complicated histories as they run from the cops. But after a slickly filmed, Scorsese-esque opening (distinguished by an impressive steadicam tracking shot) that follows Rei picking up Nanae’s salaryman spouse in a seedy bar, and climaxes with a gruesome mid-coitus killing in Nanae’s opulent condo – director Ryuichi Hiroki takes a deft, counterintuitive turn away from lurid pulp fiction thriller territory. What unfolds is something more akin to Thelma & Louise with shades of Blue Is The Warmest Color, as both women make their clumsy getaway in stilettos and a crimson BMW.
Rei and Nanae’s initial escape is filled with laughs and catharsis. Instead of worrying about covering their tracks or evading law enforcement, they enjoy each other’s company as they drive through the scenic Japanese countryside. The pair share giggles over beers, take detours to reminisce, and sing along to their favourite pop songs (like ‘CHE.R.R.Y’ by Yui) – less fugitives on the lam than old friends reuniting on vacation. But we soon understand that they’re not sociopathic – Rei and Nanae are simply embracing the kind of freedom they’ve never been allowed to have. This escape is their exhilarating stab at reclaiming agency, and through their shared experience, a genuine kinship begins to develop.
But underneath their seemingly carefree journey lies something darker. Ride Or Die uses their flight to interrogate the twisted power dynamics and sexual tension underlying Rei and Nanae’s relationship. Through flashbacks and conversation we learn of Nanae’s impoverished upbringing, the fact that she started sex work at a young age, and her long history of being repressed by controlling men (first her father, then her husband). On the other hand, Rei grew up spoiled and rich, but has suffered in her own way: she was forced to keep her sexuality hidden by her traditional parents, and has been tormented by her long-burning unrequited crush on Nanae.
In high school, Rei literally tried to buy Nanae’s affection in numerous ways, such as paying off Nanae’s tuition to the tune of 3million yen. And now, their reconnection is again transactional, with Rei committing homicide for sex with Nanae – a promise that the latter is perhaps not ready to make good on. When Nanae threatens to turn herself over to the police mid-way through the film, Rei flips out and screams, “You could’ve at least let me fuck you first!”
Rei’s regret is compounded when the film shifts focus to everything she left behind: a loving girlfriend, a career as a cosmetic surgeon, and the comfort of a wealthy family. These layers of mutual exploitation through class division and sexual manipulation muddy the burgeoning friendship they’re currently nurturing. Ride Or Die’s greatest strength is its willingness to decelerate in order to investigate messy emotional truths, even when they paint both protagonists in an ugly light.
Honami and Mizuhara are excellent in their respective performances – this is easily the latter’s most substantive role to date – and carefully unpeel the veneers of their characters’ motivations and personalities. Likewise, Hiroki’s direction gracefully captures the rhythms of their intimacy, focusing on a burdened yet blossoming relationship through languid long takes and extended close-ups.
But, at 142 minutes, Ride Or Die’s meandering road trip does run out gas at times. There are a few too many dead-end digressions that could have been edited down, and certain characters have abrupt – and baffling – changes of heart. Nevertheless, this morally opaque and erotically charged character study is the kind of sensitive slow burn that rewards more than it frustrates.
- Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
- Starring: Kiko Mizuhara, Honami Sato
- Release date: April 15 (Netflix)