Ride or Die review – an unusual, sexually-charged Japanese drama

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: April 15, 2021 (Last updated: December 1, 2023)
Ride or Die review - an unusual, sexually-charged Japanese drama


Ride or Die is overlong and self-indulgent, but it’s also a bravely messy and ambiguous romance (if it’s even a romance at all) that deserves to be persevered with.

This review of Ride or Die is spoiler-free.

At first glance, Hiroki Ryuichi’s Ride or Die, now streaming on Netflix, looks like several different things, almost none of which it ends up being. It has a classic crime-thriller premise but leads with what in most movies would be the second-act crescendo. It’s a romance, technically, but it’s too dark and bizarre to be considered all that romantic. It runs two and a half hours but doesn’t endeavor to fill the time with much of anything, content to allow its three or so non-linear timelines to play out lazily, as if the authorities pursuing the main characters are on a very extended donut break. Perhaps they are. Either way, it’s not a film that’s easy to watch, classify, review, or sit with after the fact, which is probably the point.

That premise mentioned above proceeds thusly: Nanae (Sato Honami), an ostensibly straight Japanese housewife who has spent a lifetime being abused by men and has had just about enough of her particularly unpleasant husband enlists Rei (Mizuhara Kiko), an old lesbian friend who was obsessed with her in high school, to kill him. The reward will be sex, though it becomes clear quite quickly that following through with the proposed payment won’t be as easy for Nanae as she made out, and that Rei isn’t particularly opposed to the arrangement either way. Already we’re in tricky territory here, with the central relationship we’re supposed to buy into largely being inscrutable from the audience’s perspective. We’re to understand that Nanae is desperate enough to draw up some terms and conditions that she’s probably incapable – at least at first – of honoring, but beyond that, the way these two women feel about each other, themselves, or the world at large, is never quite clear.

I don’t mean this in the sense of basic morality, who’s right and wrong. Both are… well, both, in varying degrees and for different reasons. I mean that the essential questions of whether what we’re seeing develop is a friendship or a relationship, if either one loves the other or is simply using them, if both are capable of more and worse than they think, are never especially clear. But, curiously, the script doesn’t really pretend it’s going to answer these questions definitively down the line – it’s content to let both potential outcomes be true, either one at a time or together, and never commits to choosing a side. It’s Schrödinger’s plotting, essentially, but it never lets the cat out of the box to find out either way.

Ride or Die is adapted from Nakamura Ching’s manga series Gunj?, which I’m unfamiliar with, so much of what happens was a surprise to me. There’s so much nudity and blood in the opening scenes, which pinball between genres and timelines and tones as if for fun, that I braced myself for a grueling long-haul, like Night in Paradise provided on Netflix not so long ago. But there’s scarcely any violence for the rest of the film, and no more sex until close to the very end (excepting one uncomfortable scene deliberately filmed unclearly through a car window). You’d almost never believe that Nanae and Rei are fleeing from the authorities after a murder they both planned; they treat the whole thing like a holiday, make no efforts to cover their tracks, and just enjoy spending time with one another.

Whether or not audiences enjoy spending time with either of them is another matter. For the most part, I admired the film’s cavalier attitude and complete refusal to follow any kind of familiar storytelling rubric; it’s also gorgeously shot and well performed. But I’d understand why a person hated it. The length is self-indulgent, as are many of the subplots, some of which go nowhere and take a good while about it. The unflinching honesty of both the characters and the film itself can also sometimes come off as inauthentic, as though it’s being frank in a performative way, to revel in its edgy forthrightness when really something more logical would do. But at the same time this is what makes Ride or Die so fascinating and unpredictable, and also what makes its portrayal of two thoroughly lost women so relatable in their attempts to find something about each other they can latch onto. The freewheeling primacy of the characters’ decision-making is an artistic choice that doesn’t always work, but the film would be a much lesser story without it. Frankly, it might not even be much of a story at all.

As things stand, Ride or Die won’t be for everyone, but then again what is? It’s nevertheless much more interesting and affecting than most of Netflix’s film output, and in a pop-culture landscape that demands every piece of artistic output be easily classifiable as one thing or another, it’s refreshing to see a movie that proudly refuses to be anything but itself.

READ: Hard Days Review

Movie Reviews, Netflix