The missions are a fascinating study all on their own, due to the girls slowly becoming less and less successful as the mission goals become increasingly difficult. For example, the old man / mission commander / guardian angel warns Babydoll in the very first (and most successful) battle to try to stay alive. She ends up destroying not just the oni, but also a temple. Later the girls are warned up front in the first mission to try to work as a team. They don’t, and several of them are isolated and almost die: Rocket & Babydoll specifically — only by heroic scrambling do they manage to keep each other alive. In another mission they’re warned to not wake up the “mother” — but the girls end up killing both an adult dragon and her offspring. The final mission, which fails and ends in Rocket’s death, is to protect an entire city — and in the end the girls cannot stop the bomb in time.
So Babydoll destroys first a temple — religion did not protect her, after all — and then later the girls slaughter a mother and infant; clearly they are all motherless and cannot empathize with either the sleeping baby dragon or the grief-stricken parent. Admittedly, the mother is a fire-breathing dragon doing her best to kill them all for the murder of her child… but what does that say about the girls’ respective parents, and the protection they should have been able to receive from family? It’s no surprise, in a way, to see the entire city go up in the final atomic blast: what is religion, what are families and communities, to girls who have been utterly abandoned by all of society?
Another small grace note that wasn’t really understandable until later was the narrator’s introductory commentary regarding guardian angels: that they can appear as an old man or a child — and as the narrator spoke, you were looking down from the ceiling directly at Babydoll’s back, where she sat tensely on her bed waiting for news of her dying mother. I suspect that was our clue that she was, at least part of the time, embodying Sweet Pea’s guardian angel. There was also a wonderfully mind-bending moment in the brothel “level” of mental escapism, where the camera was looking over the shoulders of the girls as they sat at their dressing tables in front of the big, well-lit make-up mirrors. Just as you realized what you were seeing was the reflection of the girls rather than the girls themselves… the camera swooped forward, gliding through one of the mirrors — and you were looking at the girls’ backs as they sat in front of their mirrors again! Very “through the looking glass” there.
One other weirdly cool and surprising bit: the tools for one version of the “sucker punch” — the spike and hammer — were subtly present directly up front, right from the very beginning, in the stylized writing of the poster titles. Sweet Pea also warned us at the very beginning of her first talking scene that she was the hero of the story, in a nice bit of foreshadowing that had her symbolically assuming and refusing Babydoll’s impending lobotomy.
All those things tell a little bit about why I enjoyed the movie so, although they aren’t the sum of my enjoyment. Another thing I liked, which may or may not have been deliberate on the part of the director, was the theme of the search for Paradise — both physically and through personal redemption. For example, the girls talked about their yearning for freedom even if the price was death, and at one point we saw Sweet Pea (the only girl reluctant to risk everything) had a wine bottle labeled “Paradise” on her dressing table — it seemed appropriate she’d search first for freedom at the bottom of a bottle.
Ultimately the women all won through to their versions of Paradise, though the cost was very high. Dr./Madam Gorski brought in the authorities to stop Blue when she realized he’d forged her signature authorizing Babydoll’s lobotomy. Babydoll herself not only defeated the obsessive plotting of Blue and her stepfather, but she also redeemed herself not being able to save her little sister earlier — by rescuing Rocket and freeing Sweet Pea, who had also initially sacrificed herself to successfully rescue her little sister Rocket. Babydoll’s paradise occurred because she was willing to sacrifice herself; she was no long forced to live in a world where she was utterly alone, saddled with the guilt of accidentally murdering her beloved little sister. Rocket returned the favor of being rescued, by martyring herself in saving her big sister’s life; Sweet Pea got to return home to her family, and her bus (driven by her guardian angel in the form of the old man who organized all the earlier missions) passed a 50’s style sign announcing Paradise ahead soon.