Monday, March 07, 2005

DVD Review: A Snake of June

[This review contains many substantial spoilers.]

June in Japan is the rainy month. The snake in Japan, as in many other cultures, is a symbol for the penis. 2002's A Snake of June, by Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto (already famed for the Tetsuo films and Bullet Ballet) is an enthralling film about the awakening of desire and the explosive consequences of damming that desire.

The first thing to be said about A Snake of June is its look. Filmed in black and white, it was transferred to color stock for theatrical showing. Tsukamoto chose to use the possibilities of that stock to give his film a rich Arctic blue gloss that lends the film an otherworldly aura while still keeping the high contrast and heavy detail of black and white. (Beads of water and pores in the skin leap out in sharp relief.) The blue acts to cool the viewer even as events explode onscreen. It detaches us from events in a different way than straight-forward black and white would have. The choice of blue also ties in to the movie's extensive use of water as a metaphor.

The movie opens with photographer Iguchi, played by director Tsukamoto, trying to sell some pictures to a magazine. He's told that his pictures of inanimate objects aren't as desirable as erotic pictures. We next meet telephone social counselor Rinko Tatsumi, a quiet woman with a certain French gamin look about her: narrow horn-rim glasses, a stringy boyish bob cut and a mild androgeny. She seems very reserved and self-contained, nervous to please in that way unique to Japanese women in their twenties. Next, we meet her husband, Shigehiko. He's at least 20 years her senior, balding and pudgy and soft. A classic Japanese sarariman and apparently a bit of a momma's boy. (Even his name suggests it. "Ko" is derived for the word for "infant," and is frequently used as a diminuitive at the end of women's names: Michiko, Akiko, etc.) Shigehiko is a cleanliness and neatness freak. When we first meet him, he's scrubbing the kitchen sink. When Rinko protests, wondering if she did a good job, he replies with an odd smile that he enjoys cleaning.

As we soon learn, their marriage is dry and sexless. Repression and sterility is everywhere. Enter Iguchi. He mails a packet to Rinko titled "Secret From Your Husband." It's filled with surprising pictures of a reclining Rinko, sitting beside her living room window, exploring her body to erotic effect! We're amazed at the revelation about the prim Rinko and she's shocked by the invasion of her privacy. Iguchi has pierced the bubble built up around her.

Then she receives another packet with more pictures of her wearing a very short skirt and makeup, then having an orgasmic moment in the rain. Again, we're surprised to learn about this part of Rinko, as nothing we've been shown yet hints at it. Then, she finds a cell phone. Iguchi calls her and gives her instructions. And the movie kicks into gear.

Iguchi is one of her callers at the counseling center, we learn, someone she helped. He wants to return the favor. His plan is to blackmail her with his pictures into doing exactly what she wants to do anyway, but doesn't have the will to conquer her repression and do openly. Her fear of disrupting her marriage, shocking her husband -- her repression -- forces her to follow Iguchi's plan.

What follows is the erotic liberation of Rinko and her husband Shigehiko, after a torturous path of humiliation, voyeurism, curiousity, conflict and, ultimately, release. The film's very structure parallels the sexual act itself. We are seduced, violated, seduced again, then taken to climax.

All of this is presented through the lens, Iguchi's and Tsukamoto's. Literally, it's a movie drenched in voyeurism, just as the city itself is drenched from beginning to end in rain.

A Snake of June is all about fighting through the alienation and separation of modern city life. The film makes extensive use of static framing shots to set scenes or introduce characters. There are also a lot of circular openings -- eyes, windows, cones -- through which we see. Characters often hide around corners to watch other events unfold; there are frequent shots of background characters watching the main three in action, staring directly into the camera as though we are Rinko or Shigehiko.

Outside of their marriage, we see Rinko or Shigehiko interact with others, especially Iguchi the blackmailer, through the telephone. Other important moments come through the phone. As much as we see these three out in the world, they don't have much interaction with it. In fact, they own an observatory and a large telescope, the better to disconnect and turn their attentions elsewhere.

One stunning sequence involves Rinko being forced to wear her too-short skirt sans underwear through a department store. Her fear is so intense she dons a pair of dark glasses and clutches her umbrella in front of her, like a shield. Add to that her halting, fearful steps, knock-kneed to protect her sex, and she appears almost like a blind woman. Given that she's being led by Iguchi to her release from inhibition, that's a powerful metaphor. The sequence is shot with rapid cuts and shaky, too-close hand-held cameras, to help convey her fear and disorientation. When Iguchi next forces her to buy and insert a vibrator as she parades around the city, Rinko's all-consuming response is truly climactic, orgasmic. Her odyssey is sexual in both form and conclusion!

The counterbalancing theme is water. It pours, cascades, drips, splashes, pools and roars through A Snake of June. It's a metaphor for sexuality, the unstoppable pervasiveness of desire. In nearly every outdoor shot, it's raining. Windows are always being spattered with it. Clothes are soaked in it; faces and bodies spotted. There is a repeated shot of water racing like a torrent across stones to a storm drain, collecting in a strange, Lynchian place in the bowels of the city.

Another repeated motif is a constant use of the shadows of water running in rivulets down windows, those shadows falling on the walls behind and above the characters, to imply the repressed desire flowing through them, unceasingly running but only a hint of what could be.

There are a lot of beautiful shots of water hitting various things. Hydrangeas opening to rainfall; a snail slowly crossing a rain-spattered leaf; a rain-shrouded skyline; windows and walkways splashed with rain; public streets viewed through a haze of rain; and one genuinely wondrous shot of a rain puddle boiling with raindrops, it's whole surface alive with motion. Tsukamoto manages to combine it all with a shot I want to capture for a computer wallpaper: we see Rinko looking apprehensively out her apartment window, through the horizontal slats of open blinds, partly hidden by the angular leaves and limbs of a tree, obscured by heavy rainfall. Alienation, repression, fear and desire all in one aching image.

But this is a Shinya Tsukamoto film. His work has been compared to that of David Lynch and David Cronenberg with good reason. Viewers expect a certain weirdness from the man who brought the body-horror nightmares of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo: Body Hammer to life. With Lynch, he shares a similar view of the strangeness lurking just below the surfaces of seemingly normal life, though this movie gets comparisons to the directly weird Eraserhead. With Cronenberg he shares the same fascination with flesh and the body, the limits it can be put through, the fusion of flesh and machine. Though it's primarily a drama with overtones of psychological horror, there are a few moments of trademark Tsukamoto.

At two points in the movie, Shigehiko finds himself in a Lynchian underworld where businessmen such as himself are bound and their faces covered in intricate pig-snout cones that limit their view to tiny circles in front of them. These sarariman are forced at one moment to watch a young couple being pushed and shoved in a simulation of sex, as a fat woman in a vaguely circuslike costume bangs a drum. The couple are then put into a front-loader washing machine-like device that is equal parts carnival sideshow and cathedral altar, that fills up with water from the drains above, drowning them. Later, at his dramatic turning point, Shigehiko discovers himself inside the machine, also drowning in water from the streets, being watched by the cone-faced businessmen. Whatever is going on here is entirely metaphorical; it's not even clear he's actually in a real place. In a movie as firmly realistic as this, they are flights of absurdity that somehow still feel proper.

There's another moment, when Shigehiko is attacked by an obsessed Iguchi over Rinko, where a black corrugated tube-thing makes an appearance. The cast and crew call it the "metal penis." It's the purest "Tsukamoto" moment. I'll leave it to you to stumble on this scene.

A Snake of June reaches a shattering, life-altering climax (literally) when all three characters collide at a construction site unbeknown to each other, mostly. Rinko has at last liberated herself. After a brief call to Iguchi, she puts on the short skirt and makeup, then parades through the department store with obvious satisfaction, revelling in her freedom and power. A horrified but fascinated Shigehiko follows her, hiding like a voyeur, thinking she's having an affair with the photographer whose pictures he's found. When she struts into the site, during a torrential rainstorm, her husband hides around the corner wondering what's to come.

Iguchi flies up in his car. As he opens his window and begins to take flash pictures, Rinko gives herself to the downpour. In a solo performance of orgiastic awakening, she swivels and strips for Iguchi until she is naked, consumed in the sensations both external and internal. She finally reaches her orgasm, even as her husband does in the shadows, while Iguchi's flash pops non-stop. The scene is uncomfortable only in its intimacy.

Spent, folded into herself, she has one last thing to achieve. Rising straight, facing Iguchi's camera unflinching with a slightly crooked smile, completely naked -- not at all nude, but naked -- she invites his appraisal. Shigehiko, not comprehending that the moment is for ultimately for him, runs away ashamed.

All these events have been built up to slowly. The characters react to each other and move forward believably. But from here to the final act, it's like a rush to orgasm. I'll leave this to the viewer's delight.

As you've likely guessed by now, I'm in love with this film. It's a near-perfect blend of art, horror and drama. The intricate weaving of voyeurism into every aspect of the filming, theme, metaphor and composition of the movie, along with the concurrent use of water as another, conflicting yet complementary metaphor, makes for a dense viewing experience, even at a brisk run time of 77 minutes!

Don't think this is short. Tsukamoto makes use of a lot of the fancy film tricks -- abrupt cuts within scenes, shaky hand-held cameras, oddball angles, changing points of view, long empty establishing shots -- so beloved of modern film-makers. (Think Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Trainspotting.) Unlike many directors who need to pad their movies to 90 minutes, and will therefore cut back on the cutting edge stuff for more conventional narrative techniques to avoid wearing out the viewer (Again, think Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Tsukamoto does no such thing. He sticks with his choices all the way through. Consequently, the movie doesn't wear you out, nor does it feel truncated. It's a unified experience, from seduction to release, in every sense.

There are other elements I'd like to discuss (I took four pages of notes on the second viewing!) but I feel I need to stop before I belabor my point. I really liked this movie. It's probably now in my Top Ten. It's a visual feast, a compelling story of three repressed people finding what they want, a cinematic experience, and a stunning accomplishment of eroticism. Asuka Kurosawa, the actress who plays Rinko, is brave beyond words. What she does on screen would compare to the fearlessness of a Jennifer Jason Leigh or Jennifer Connelly. Amazing but organic to her character at every moment, so her craft is invisible. Even Yuji Kohtari, as Shigehiko, rises above his stereotypic middle-aged, middle class Japanese appearance to equal moments of bashfulness and confusion that are shaded with engaging subtlety.

There's no dub available on the disk, only subtitles. They fly thick and fast in this film. It means you should watch the film twice: once with subtitles that you follow closely to catch the dialogue and narrative, then again with no subtitles so you can lose yourself in the visual experience.

The odd monochromatic color scheme reproduces perfectly, with great detail and nuance, on my television and so is a treat of its own. No artefacts are in the black areas, nor is there bleeding of colors.

There are interviews with the director and his co-stars, and another, short "making of" featurette. Along with some previews of other Tartan Asia Extreme releases, that's it.

A Snake of June gets my highest recommendation. It's clear that it was long in the conception and meticulous in its execution. Everyone in the cast and crew are fully bought into Tsukamoto's vision. If you're not sure you'll want to watch any Japanese films, and would like to try just one, make it this. It's culturally specific enough to entertain, resonant enough in its story and emotion to knock even American audiences over. It's beautiful, exotic and erotic. Powerful and cathartic like great sex. And I mean that.

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