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Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu [Yakuza Horror Theater: Gozu] –

21 Dec

 

Gozu

Nationality: Japan

Year: 2004

Pros: Marvelously weird tricksterish romp – Miike at his best and displaying the purest essence of his jokester soul. An insane trip that actually managed to surprise and leaves you wondering how the hell you go to where you get to.

Cons:

Selected Cast:

Minami Hideki Sone
Ozaki Shô Aikawa
Female Ozaki Kimika Yoshino
Nose Shohei Hino
Innkeeper Keiko Tomita
Innkeeper’s Brother Harumi Sone
Boss Renji Ishibashi

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Oh Miike, you devil!  You absolute devil!  You’re a sadist – a cruel perverted sadist with your fingers in our hair, poking us a pricking us and cutting us and goosing us exactly where we least expect it.  And what sort of grin do you wear as you find ticklish spots that we didn’t know we had and where did you study to discover just how deep you can cut us before it becomes murder and you get into trouble?  Miike – you are a fiend!  An insane fiend!  You are – you are . . . . Whatever you are, I love you for it!

Who could predict that by the end of Gozu we would be seeing . . . but no, I must not.  The viewer has to discover for themselves just where that twisting turning rabbit hole takes you.  Let me just call Gozu a Yakuza movie and leave it at that.  *ahem*  You know – Yakuza?  The famous tattooed Japanese mob/mafia/gangsters/gang/organised criminals/whatever they are.  So yes – a familiar Japanese gangster movie.  *ahem*  Perfectly safe to watch.  *ahem*  So go on – buy it now and watch it.  Late at night would be good.  *ahem*  After a few drinks of something strong would be ideal.  And preferably with some mildly squeamish company.  *ahem*  You trust me don’t you?

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Seriously though – Gozu is a trip.  A trip like no other I have ever seen.  Forget Mulholland Drive!  Gozu has a vaguely similar complex coiling twisting structure to that but it is infinitely stranger and also far more funny.  Jet black funny.  Forget also any other Miike movie that you may have seen.  You only have to see a few to realise just how utterly unpredictable this man is, with the only thing uniting almost all of his creations being his wicked sense of inventiveness and his maverick humour.  In fact – just forget EVERYTHING, ok!  Life, the universe and everything.  Whatever you may expect from the Yakuza connotations that frame this film, that is also quickly demolished and we are left spinning out of control through what can only be called ‘pure distilled weird’.  It is blackly comical surrealism where cow-headed demons can mysteriously appear, where the keeper of the hotel you are in is a lactating-obsessed old lady who serves up her own milk at breakfast and where a woman can give birth to a fully-grown full-sized man and live to tell the tale.

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It begins ‘normally’ enough, with a Yakuza named Ozaki who seems to be going mad – at any rate exhibiting behaviour that is strange even for Yakuza.  And the Boss makes the decision to get rid of him by sending him to the ‘Yakuza Disposal Dump’ (that’s what it says) in Nagoya.  Unfortunately the person assigned to take him there is someone very close to him – the young Yakuza Minami.  Unfortunately again, things begin to get strange when Ozaki is accidentally killed in a rather minor car incident.  Apparently.  Or maybe not.  Or maybe is and not together.  At any rate, the corpse vanishes.  Sending the increasingly bewildered Minami on an ever-spiralling quest to find it again.  A quest that just gets stranger . . . and stranger . . . and STRANGER.  Further and further down the rabbit hole.  In the end, when it is all over, you can discover an actually quite simple story going on if you look for it – but no more details will you get from me about cow-headed demons and lactating landladies!  You must watch it for yourself now and experience this delirious spiral for yourself.

This incredibly weird weirdness is actually told with a very sparse and restrained pallet with very few real special effects in this film. What there is though is very nicely done indeed (and believe me must have involved some very game actors and actresses!).  And with just the right touch of hokey about them to complement the generally hokey style of the whole thing.  Hideki Sone’s performance as Minami is also superb and also brilliantly manages to avoid overdoing things in this crazy spiral.  And also the music – very eerie and icy modernist cello (or is it metal blade on blackboard?) – adds a very nice touch to the film.

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Miike is not like other directors . . . . err, what have I just said?  I think that is blatantly obvious.  What I MEANT was that while most directors have a distinctly recognisable area in which they work, Miike seems happy diving into almost anything and somehow making it his own.  His main characteristic is that he HAS no characteristic in that sense, yet at the same time he has stamped his own unique stamp onto almost everything that he touches.  His films have stretched from the horrific Audition and the strange stilted comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris to the incredibly weird English language Japanese/American hybrid horror that is Imprint, the gloriously fantastical children’s fantasy romp of The Great Yokai War (though believe me, we are a LONG way from Disney here) and the off-beat superhero movie of Zebraman and numerous yakuza and martial arts films – to, heaven help us, the incest- and necrophilia-ridden ‘family comedy’ of Visitor Q and the hyper-violent Ichi the Killer*.  What can you make of an output like that?

Well – where Miike is concerned, one can really benefit from getting to know him a bit I think.  Any of these films coming at you from nowhere can leave you shell-shocked and very confused – and possibly physically sick if you had the misfortune to get hit by one of his more extreme efforts first.  But the unifying characteristic is there and it is this very unpredictability that is his great charm and great genius.  Like some strange puppet master, he moves behind all these different pop-culture or art-house or pornographic styles (meaningless terms here really) and he makes them all dance to his own tune.  And once you begin to get a handle on the devilish personality behind all these extraordinarily different films, then suddenly things come clearer and one begins to develop an appreciation for this weird world as a whole.  The realisation that there is indeed a very curious sort of art going on.  An art that is hard to compare with anything else.  The realisation comes that Miike is basically a huge joker and that his sadistic and perverted delight is to torment and surprise and that nothing – NOTHING – is too much for achieving that end.  If Audition leaves your head ringing, or Ichi the Killer makes your gorge rise or Happiness of the Katakuris is just one huge WTF? then he is achieving his prankster’s ambition as this illusive and unpredictable (and dangerous and devilish) sprite of Japanese pop culture.  His fluid fighting style (sorry – artistic style) is something unlike any other director that I can think of.  Even if some of the individual films leave one reeling and queasy and go so far beyond the pale that strange new states of matter are formed in the intense pressure, I cannot help but be fascinated by the overall entity that is Takashi Miike.  A dark dancing devil in modern cinema.

* As one might clearly expect, Miike runs up against many censorship issues in his work and much trouble with the very primitive Japanese censorship requirements – in fact it seems an ongoing battle (witness the awful dvd release of Visitor Q, which is almost unwatchable due to endless bobbing black spots on the screen).  Fortunately this doesn’t seem to effect Gozu much and he managed to circumvent the problems with only a little awkwardness and it doesn’t get in the way of things too badly.  Interestingly, Miike’s own attitude to this was rather revealed in his TV miniseries MPD Psycho, which many people found to be censored beyond a point when the film was still comprehensible.  However, it appears that there is more to this than there at first seems.  It seems that in this case, in the face of the requirements (which are basically censoring images of genitalia, nothing else – which of course are far more disturbing than any violent death or blood and guts!), he finally flipped and decided that if they wanted censorship, he would give it to them. He deliberately slung the screen pixelation and blurring around far beyond what was needed, blurring out EVERYTHING that was remotely other than ordinary to make the point how annoying and stupid this whole thing is.  Considering the way this obscures a lot of the crucial plot elements and generally makes following what is going on considerably harder (Miike’s extreme images and actions are usually a very integral part of the plot rather than gratuitous addendums), you could almost say he wrecked his own work in protest.  But it also makes the censorship a part of the artwork in a way – so perhaps it is not without interest after all!  That trick alone means that MPD Psycho might be worthy of a Strange Review sometime – but it is so frustrating as well that I am not sure I can be bothered with either that or Visitor Q.  I have been unable to track down any hint of uncensored versions existing of either of them so it could be that both these films have been irreparably wrecked.

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And Gozu’s place in all this?  I think, if I had to attempt the impossible task of picking one film as an introduction to Miike’s work, it might be this one.  It is my favourite because it is the best demonstration I have seen yet (I haven’t seen all his films by a long way) of the sheer inventive weirdery at the heart of his work and of his sense of humour.  Perhaps, in a way, it is also the purest of his films (that I have seen).  It is a voyage through his twisting brain that is not occluded by a strong allegiance to any genre or to the specific agenda of going as far as humanly possible to freak or gross you out.  Instead – hummm, no way can I call this more subtle (subtle and Miike in the same sentence?  No – don’t think so!), but this is somehow the best essence of Miike’s corkscrew mind I have seen – Miike down the rabbit hole.  Distilled and served in a small brown bottle with the instruction “swallow with milk”.

964 Pinocchio – Shozin Fukui

21 Dec

964 Pinocchio

Nationality: Japan

Year: 1991

Pros: Firstly by a long way is the mad and brilliant performance by Onn Chan.  That is what makes this film more than anything.  Second is the brilliant vision and cinematography of the film.  The mix of punk underground and absurdism is striking as well.  Impressive guerrilla performing. 

Cons: Sometimes it shows its rough edges big-time, but why not?  It’s all part of this crazy trip.

Selected Cast: 

Pinocchio 964 Hage Suzuki
Himiko Onn Chan

964 Pinocchio

Hey – you think you know about the underground?  Just because you have seen Erasorhead/El Topo/Ma Mere/Sweet Movie/*insert name of any other film vaguely of the underground here*?  Well – you don’t know nothing about the underground.  You, sitting there in your comfortable apartment buying your dvds on Amazon – what do you know about underground?  You who have never been to hidden illegal cinemas set up in abandoned PowerStations or under the streets of London in forgotten chambers – you who actually buy dvds?  From DVD producers?  Gimme a break!  What do you know about underground?

Underground is an elusive concept it seems.  Whatever it is, people are only too happy to point out that it is far beyond your own personal ken.  No matter what you have seen or experienced, underground is something beyond it.  Underground therefore becomes a sort of chimera that can never actually be seen because the very act of catching it removes its underground status.  Underground is what you don’t know about.  At least if you are the sort who reads reviews online, then buys commercial dvds.  Underground is as far down the rabbit hole as it is possible to imagine it stretching vertiginously below you.  The only place where laws and commercialism and perverted social norms don’t matter.  Where intellectual property and other things that have stifled art can be forgotten.  Where horrors and truths and philosophies are broadcast that would make the DVD producers faint dead away.  The only place where you can be truly radical if you want and where purveyors of ideas that could change the world – if they weren’t so radical that nobody would listen – rub shoulders with amateur porn and smut directors.  Or so radical that anyone caught with them would be incarcerated in remote bays behind barbed wire for the rest of their lives.  So my vivid imagination pictures it anyway.  Underground . . . in its very definition, not something that can function within mainstream life.

[Don’t believe me?  Ok, here’s a few concrete examples.  When I was at college, I remember news of a certain performance drifting round.  Not a college performance but one that happened in a commercial theatre.  News was vague and all I can remember is the basic essence.  Which was the director on stage with a line of female actors.  The performance was running normally enough for a modern event, until he suddenly broke the nose of one of them, leaving her on the floor dazed and bloody.  The audience was startled, wondering what on earth they had just seen.  Special effect?  Apparently not.  The next girl ended up with her arm broken in a similar savage attack.  Eventually it was too much and the audience invaded and halted things and the police were called.  The man behind this weird performance was arrested, even though it seems the girls had been totally aware of and happy with what was intended – quite happy to have their bones broken for art.  The reactions to this at college were obviously rather polarising, but the shocking statement it made about the difference between reality and fantasy in the minds of the audience fascinated many people.  As did the simple, terrible drama of the idea and the ‘trick’ it played on the unsuspecting audience.  Indeed, after hearing about it, a female friend of mine came up to me and said “Wow – I want to be in a performance like that.”  The director later committed suicide.  Is he the same one who blew his brains out on stage with a shotgun against a white sheet as a part of his performance?  Who knows.  But neither of those things could ever exist within the familiar commercial world – which qualifies them as underground art in my opinion.]

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Why am I talking so about the underground?  Is 964 Pinocchio underground in this sense?  Hardly!  Hey – I bought it on Amazon!  But it is a film very much associated with the word Underground by many and it may be that this film is about as far as it is possible to go while still being able to function in the film world.  Along perhaps with Sweet Movie (which would probably land its director in jail if it was made now).  It is filled with guerilla filming techniques in abandoned locations and in public places (sneaking in and grabbing a quick scene and then getting out before any trouble occurs), giving the Tokyo public a few memorable surprises in the process.  (How would you react if a white-faced, blood-stained man in rags came barging through the crowd in a busy city street at a full run, screaming and pulling what looks like a several ton lump of concrete behind him, making you all leap out of the way? Or maybe you encounter the girl in a welding mask skipping gaily through the supermarket pushing a trolley at full speed and filling it with chains?)  It also has an anonymous lead actress, known only as Onn-Chan, who gives what I will stick my neck out and call one of the most remarkable (and outrageous) performances I have ever seen in a Japanese film.  I have been able to discover nothing about her – that nick-name is a blank wall.  All this would probably cause all sorts of bureaucratic headaches in the UK but mercifully never stood in the way of the film happening in Japan.

964 Pinocchio

So – what is 964 Pinocchio?  It’s an obscure film with no UK dvd release – not one of the Japanese names that you tend to hear about much except on the more specialist websites.  And there the reviews are very mixed and uncertain what to make of it.  The US dvd label markets it as ‘Cyberpunk’, which is a dubious term at best.  In this case perhaps it is more punk than cyber, since it is very far from being a techno or cyberspace sort of story environment!  More an urban nightmare!  In essence, the film resembles a hallucinatory trip more than any kind of normal storytelling exercise.  That story tells some weirdery about an escaped brainwashed (and obviously seriously damaged) male sex slave known as a Pinocchio and the company desperately trying to find him again and the totally loopy character who takes him home and ‘looks after’ him (in ways that you must pray you are never looked after)!  Ending eventually with a weird, trippy conclusion that – well – is about what you might expect from this film and which I don’t really pretend to understand.  Something about physically combining heads I think.  Also, the special effects are either outrageously hokey or works of low-budget genius (your call – i vote for the latter) – and the same can be said if of the acting.  Add to that a few grotesque spin-offs from porn culture thrown in for good measure, the ‘worlds longest ever vomiting scene’ in a public subway and curiously paralelling the notorious subway scene in Żuławski’s Possession (it’s a shame Onn-Chan cant win a medal for that one!) and a lead actor (964 Pinocchio himself) who spends almost the entire script thrashing around, wailing and making funny noises of torment . . . and it is quite a recipe.

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Yes – as with so many of these low-budget and somewhat ingenuous numbers, this film still manages to hit some weird kind of spot and elevate itself to the rank of bizarre and brilliant outsider art. And of course, it is the way that this story is presented and the director’s own unique vision that achieves that.  Hallucinatory, lurid, very dark – sometimes very funny and absurdist and every inch a mind-fuck. Indeed, in some ways, this thing reminds me more of modern performance art more than normal cinema. Shozin Fukui handles his material beautifully, obviously with a considerable nod to the famous Tetsuo: Iron Man, but also with a very distinct long-breathed style of his own. It is more like a piece of music than a narrative that progresses and builds in a normal way – with great long spans of film dedicated to a single activity.  And you know – for all the hokey aspects of this, I am somewhat awed by it and the actors involved in it.  The whole thing drives forward with an energy that it is hard to imagine in any more ‘polished’ and ‘professional’ creation.  Indeed, perhaps more than anything else, this film is a showcase for its lead actress – that obscure and wonderful Onn-Chan.  Who she is I have no idea – whether she has done anything else I have no idea.  But what an amazing performance!  She is a twisted, frightening, insane, glowingly outragious and totally wonderful character. And she pulls some of the best faces i have ever seen on screen!

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I cant help thinking that this may be one of the few films where it is actually true that the best way to approach it is after several stiff drinks.

Shozin Fukui went on to direct the equally hallucinatory, (only) slightly less weird and possibly more polished Rubbers Lover and the two films are available in a box set – known simply as the Cyberpunk Collection.  Rumours and whispers have it that he has also done three more films since then, but there is no sign of these outside of Japan and most sites have never heard of them.  Maybe, heh, they are too underground?

Stacy – Naoyuki Tomomatsu

21 Dec

Nationality: Japan

Year: 2001

Pros:Tongue in cheek zombie movie that really manages to pull off some crazy social satire.  A heavy dose of J-pop culture and genuinely inventive film making going on in here.  Very silly film and very haunting in some unexpected ways, which is a weird mix.Cons: Aagaaggg – what IS it about the Japanese and schoolgirls?? Plus, of course, enough blood and guts to make Sam Raimi wince.
DVD Details: Only available from the US in a Region 1 disk.

You know something?  There are times when I just HATE genre horror movies.  I am always reluctant to express hate in my reviews because these things obviously have a long and powerful tradition – just, not for me!  Vampires, werewolves, ug – and the living dead are the worst of all of them – it’s sooooooo boring!  I saw my Romero and my Evil Dead long ago and that was enough for me.  You can keep your zombies!  Or at least so I thought until along came this weird and silly Japanese take on them.  Yup – it is a zombie flick – with lots of everything you expect and dread from a zombie flick.  The living dead being cut up with chain saws.  Blood and guts all over the room – even on the camera lens at one point. The world shaken to it’s foundation by these bloody upheavals.  And lots of zombies making their way very slowly along roads.  But it is also much more than that – and I am left shaking my head, wondering what to say about it.  How to convince you of the strangeness of this film.  How to convey that there are more dimensions to it than cutting up living dead school girls with chainsaws. Please remember, this is a Japanese zombie movie about cutting up living dead school girls with chainsaws . . . and in Japan there is no legal statute to prevent the dodgiest forms of art sometimes being interesting as there seems to be in the west.  The important point is that this film transcends that slasher movie foundation to develop into a curious and puzzling work of art.  To put it bluntly, this film managed to be, at one and the same time, a totally absurd and tongue in cheek flick that can never, under any circumstances, be taken seriously and also something with many levels going on and venturing into some strange deep and dark places that maybe can be taken seriously.  That is a very Japanese thing to manage and it’s a dichotomy that really troubles western viewers, who tend to want it to be either one or the other and cant handle this mix.  It ranges from the grotesque and the gruesome to the sad, funny, haunting and downright touching and beautiful.  Hard to analyse as well – hard even to work out if I entirely like it or not!  But it is a highly interesting blend, if a somewhat perverted one at times!  But then, any movie in the slasher arena is perverted to some degree or other and, in general, we seem pretty accepting of that particular perversion!  And of course, you have to remember that, for the Japanese, schoolgirls are such a cultural icon that they are one of the more prevalent images in Japanese pop creativity – and it is hardly surprising to find them here in this pop-culture romp!  Therefore, this is just the Japanese schoolgirl version of a slasher movie rather than the American student version.  Shocking, disgusting, twisted and more or less run-of-the-mill in that regard.  And, when it comes to perversions, even the Japanese schoolgirls can’t compete, thank goodness, with the sheer unadulterated horror of what the Americans are capable of, even on prime-time TV!

The time is now – but definitely not the present.  Girls (only girls) between the ages of 15 and 17 are succumbing to a mysterious condition that nobody really understands.  It first manifests itself as a period of “Near Death Happiness”, leading to the victims wandering around in a deliriously happy, seemingly love-struck state.  In fact they are almost becoming their own clichés in Japanese media and anime!  The cute girls prancing gaily through their animated worlds, in love with everyone and everything.  And it is this state of media-style perfection that leads directly to zombiehood.  The artificial happiness doesn’t last and they eventually die. Only to transform into your familiar common or garden flesh-hungry zombies known as Stacys – but prettier than Romero’s kind.  Covered with some shimmery material called “Butterfly Sparkle Powder” (I just love the way the Japanese can deliver lines like that with such perfect solemn seriousness!), their living dead faces still following that artificial media-glitz style – looking more like anorexic supermodels than ravening zombies.  Is the zombie state a satirical jab at the unreal and glitzy images of media idolisation?  Gawd almighty!  Is this schoolgirl slasher actually containing feminist symbolism????  If so, then that is Unexpected Aspect No. 1.  The first of many things that open up rather different philosophical avenues than a normal zombie flick is likely to.

And, surprise surprise, the stacys can only be destroyed by cutting them up into precisely 165 pieces (?), which is known as being “repeat killed”.  Not surprisingly, all this has a certain effect on culture and society as families watch their daughters making the inevitable transformation and as the government struggles to find ways to deal with the situation without loosing their grip entirely on familiar normalcy or actually doing anything radical.  It is here that the film is perhaps at its best – the little touches it uses to portray society dealing with this . . . The ads on tv.  The official systems in place.  People’s attitudes, which are still disturbingly normal.  Trying to maintain a farcical semblance of law and order, it is carefully legislated that the only people allowed to destroy these zombies aside from the special squads set up for that purpose (known as the Romero Troops, ha ha!*) are family or boyfriends.  However, in common with most government measures to deal with serious situations, the ‘stacy laws’ don’t work and there is a proliferation of illegal repeat killers who will do the job for you if you are desperate.  There is even talk of making those special squads a kind of compulsory national service. In the film, one man does join such a squad on a desperate search for his beloved penfriend, now a stacy – a search that takes him to mad scientists laboratories and weird research facilities, and to the absolute depths of emotion hunting stacys in the streets.  One scene – of half a dozen heavily armoured Romero soldiers howling their eyes out in a quiet suburban street over the sweet, philosophical, resignedly aware and very happy looking young girl that they will one day have to cut up into 165 pieces – has to rank as one of the oddest ever filmed.

* – This is very much an ‘in’ film, happy to fill itself with affectionate references to the genre.  I am not a real expert on zombie films, but you cant really miss the Romaro references and (best of all) the huge nod to Bruce Campbell and his chainsaw from Evil Dead.  Definitely moments worth a chuckle.

Meanwhile, a young puppeteer named Shibu-san has made a new friend.  The ethereal and haunting Eiko, unfortunately entering the last stages of transformation into a stacy – the near death happiness.  Its hard and strange to make friends with one in an ethereal state and on the way towards death – but Shibukawa finds himself drawn ever-closer to this happy doomed figure, though it is inevitable that this will be a tragic and very strange and pained relationship.  Soon she has a favour to ask.  She, understandably, would prefer to be cut up into small pieces by someone she knows and feels close to rather than by the stacy equivalent of dustbin men, which of course is against the law.  Its a hard request to deal with, but how can you not agree to a thing like that?  But the legal aspects are heading for redundant anyway as his attraction to this girl is developing into something much more than friendship*.  Falling in love with the girl he will soon have to kill and dismember is no easy thing.  His final declaration of his love is both heroic and touching in its classic Japanese sweetness . . .

Mr Rix, Mr Rix, Mr Rix – what are you TALKING about?  Are you finally going nuts?  What is this nonsense?  Butterfly Sparkle Powder?  And you’re taking it seriously? I know I know – do you think this is easy for me??  All I can say is that this is Japan – Just keep that fact before you at all times.  Japan – a place where ‘nonsense’ and ‘taking it seriously’ are not always quite so clear-cut.  Yes – I KNOW that by all western laws something like this shouldn’t be so intriguing.  Maybe I am a strange and sentimental fool for probing beyond the surface of this to such a degree.  Or maybe not.  Interesting and intellectual is where you find it.

* – Please remember that Japan is a culture without such a huge watershed at the mystical age of 18 so the concept of a (pretty much platonic) romance between a young artist and a 16-17 year old is not going to be that strange or unnerving to them.  Trust me – that is the LEAST disturbing part of this crazy film!

And what are we left with at the end?  If nothing else, it is very nicely made.  It is filled with little details that grab you and make you blink and a sometime wonderful aesthetic sense (the puppets and puppet show that Shibu-san puts on for instance, are mesmerising).  It is filled with a sense of being lovingly put together and with strange touches of unexpected art.  And even the somewhat hokey and extreme special effects work very nicely.  There is a lot of puzzlement though – in my case anyway.  Puzzlement as to the implications of what has just been watched!  You are torn in many directions at once on many levels at once.  Wanting to dismiss it as a silly zombie flick, but not quite able.  Wanting to understand it, but not quite able.  Somewhat freaked out by the sense of what I can only describe as ‘beautiful perversion’ and unsure just what the hell IS perverted about it precisely.  Above all is that decidedly strange feeling left behind about culture’s idolization and perversion of young innocence (in terms of that hollow media glitz) and the feeling that, all along, the zombie genre may have portrayed a disease of the mind that is an inevitable reaction to civilization.

I think that love is the key though.  That’s what this is – a love story!  It really is.  And that is Unexpected Aspect No. 2.  Every thread of the story revolves around love – warm, strange, haunting love.  Love Japanese style, which seems very different from ours in some ways.  Love for stacys, love for people, love for young innocence, love for that very glitzy glamour that the film also seems to aim at, love for humanity in general, love leading to death and destruction and tragedy but still filled with warmth, even at its most twisted.  What IS this?  Exactly what levels is this thing taking place in?  What is it trying to say?  I don’t know – and possibly this confusion is a normal reaction of a British writer trying to get his head round some of the more far-out Japanese creations, which really don’t sit well with our own ways of thinking.  Of course, you cant take a film about zombies covered in Butterfly Sparkle Powder seriously, can you!  But I’ve said it before and I will say it again – this seemingly very silly film manages to kick hard right into some very deep, dark and uneasy places – places that most films wouldn’t dare to go.  I guess that is a tribute to the Japanese way of making things – where ‘even’ a zombie schoolgirl slasher flick gets that special touch of something that transcends everything that you expect.  It leaves me intrigued, and this site of mine is supposed to be about the ‘strange’, not merely the creatively weird – and this film is definitely strange.

Tokyo X Erotica – Takahisa Zeze

21 Dec

Tokyo X Erotica – Takahisa Zeze

Nationality: Japan

Year:

Pros: Beautiful, quietly psychedelic and surreal and with very innovative storytelling.  Exquisitely shot.Cons: Well – I have to say the not inconsiderable and pornographic sex.  That is not a con in this case of course, but it could put off a lot of people.

When reviewing Stacy, I said somewhere that in Japan there is no legal statute to prevent the dodgiest forms of art sometimes being interesting as there seems to be in the west.  If anything, Tokyo X only emphasises that more.  The Japanese have an aesthetic that can take anything onto a new and unexpected level – even what is basically a porn flick.  Why am I now taking a porn flick seriously?  Simple!  As well as a sex film, this is actually a very strange, surreal and dreamy piece of cinema.  Only the Japanese could have pulled this one off – and the result is not really like anything we are used to.  This site is not just dedicated to the creatively weird in film making – it specifically seeks out the strange and the unusual, the unexpected or the out of place.  Things that challenge all your expectations or your perceptions of what makes an interesting work.  And, by that standard, Tokyo X Erotica fits the bill perfectly.

The Japanese are very bad at sex in films, generally speaking.  They are still very coy about the subject and seem unable to escape from either a cloying, unexploratory chastity or a kind of Miike-style back-flip into the most extreme fantasy they can think of, simply in reaction against the norm.  Japanese censorship is also a destructive element in this area of work as, while any amount of gruesome violence seems to be ok, they are highly prudish about any anatomical details*.  All this together can give Japanese work a really unpleasantly ‘dirty’ feel and the one thing you don’t see much of is sensible, artistic, level-headed looks into the erotic as an artistic element and sex as a psychological element – taking it seriously and escaping from the Japanese stereotypes.  However, there is one rather underground ‘genre’ of movies that are at least trying to change that – with varying degrees of success.  This is the‘pink’ or pinku film – a rather wide-ranging Japanese term covering almost any film that tackles sexual subjects.  It is a curious genre (as far as it can be called such) and one that gathers quite a bit of respect and attention, which is strange for an erotica genre until you actually take a look at it.  Pink films can be remarkably psychologically complex and often very dark and haunting.  Something you rarely see in the west where erotica is just – well – erotica and usually devoid of anything beyond the skin it is shoving at you.  As though serious art and arousal are mutually exclusive.

Tokyo X is one of the most interesting Pink films that I have seen (I haven’t seen many!) and one of the few i have seen to tackle this area with what could be called real success.  How many other porn films can you think of that start with a scene in a road tunnel following a gas attack?  In how many porn films can a stupid green water pistol kill?  How many other porn films make use of Postmodernist narrative techniques?  In how many other porn films do you suddenly encounter the god of death dressed in a huge pink bunny suit?

* – Want a depressing example?  An American book called Death Scenes was released in Japan in 1996.  It sounds a depressing book (though mustn’t judge without seeing it!) of graphic images of murder and suicide victims. The censorship boards didn’t like it and objected sharply – but why?  Well yes, some of those maimed and mutilated bodies were naked!!!!

Tokyo X is very much a porn film in foundation – let’s get that quite clear so that there may be no unpleasant surprises for those panicked by such things.  The terms ‘pink’ and ‘porn’ don’t really correlate at all in general and pink films are often more about complex sexual psychology than explicit action.  But, Tokyo X is one of the exceptions to that, which only makes it more curious that it should be such a haunting work.  Essentially it combines both complex sexual psychology AND action (though not actually hugely explicit) – as well as a really nice sparse and dreamy aesthetic – to create something really quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.  Its structure is dictated by a series of pornographic tableau or episodes, acting like bridge piers around which the narrative is slung.  In classic porn movie fashion, various different kinds of sex get a look in, even a three-way.  But I have to say, it is all very tastefully and artily done and about as far as it is possible to get from what you would expect from porn in the west.  (Porn = boring and total absence of art by and large).  Sadly, if I were to publish images to back up my claim, I would probably get into trouble with primative webhosting regulations.  So you will have to discover that for yourselves by watching it.

So much for the bridge piers. But what makes the film interesting is the overarching narrative that links all this together.  I say narrative rather than story, because this is anything but a comfortable linear plot.  The Japanese are masters at blending the episodic with the overarching – creating things that are a collection and a single story at one and the same time.  And in this case, in true postmodern fashion, a very delicate and enigmatic web is spun, starting with two deaths and then slowly building up material in flashbacks to surround them and the surreal blending of past and present, living and dead, earth and afterlife, reality and supernatural.  Interspersed by curious ‘interview’ sections and news reports of the latest horror – the gas attack.  It is like a book worm eating its way through a novel, not reading through a straight span but somehow burrowing through it, layer after layer, until it is all consumed.  The result is very diffuse and unformed, like a dream and, in my opinion, it works perfectly.  It is NOT nonsense, as many say.  It is not narrativeless and meaningless – instead it is a very quietly unusual way of telling a story – a very Japanese way.  It might need more than one viewing to really get to grips with what is going on.  Like a dream also, the surrealism is not overt, but more in the sense of the atmosphere, with only a few startling moments of genuine strangeness suddenly making their presence felt.  The story coils through the lives of a handful of young people from Tokyo, filled with the haunting sadness of modern life in the city.  Sometimes painful and violent, sometimes really touching, sometimes downright unnerving.  The green water pistol especially drifts through things as a classic Japanese idée fix ­– sometimes as an agent of birth (filled with semen and used for insemination) and sometimes of death (surreal murder and suicide).  This is the atmosphere of Tokyo – you ride through the city in the rain, glimpsing half-seen beauties and horrors amid the endlessly opening streets.  Faces that might just be familiar – coming and going.  The inability of ever really touching another person, just as you can never really touch the characters in this film as they drift through their city isolation, even as they fuck.  A pop-art sheen fills the world – a slowly drifting haze, concealing pain and tragedy.  You are no longer sure if you are asleep or awake. You believe in ghosts and believe that there are worlds beyond the familiar.  Overhead the stars are shining, some already dead long ago but still glowing for us . . .

And you know what?  I have to be bold here.  Not make any excuses because they are not needed. Even though it is a porn film, I have to stand up and shout “This is bloody beautiful!”  It is really nicely done, beautifully and innovatively shot, extraordinarily structured, quietly psychedelic and really involving and touching/haunting.  The actors do a beautiful job of bringing this to life without looking awkward – which is quite an achievement considering some of the material. It may be a bit heavy handed and dirge-like on occasion, but it really is a genuinely brilliant piece of art.  And people really shouldn’t be frightened away from it by the fact that it is such a sexually explicit work.  It is a film that deserves consideration no matter what it is.  It could teach most western erotica a thing or two, I can tell you that at least.

Bottom line – I am glad this film exists.  It provides a benchmark for a new kind of erotica – uninhibited, psychologically aware and artistically exploratory.  And it also stands as a strange and dreamy symphony of modern love in all its bitterness and glory.

Jisatsu sâkuru (Suicide Circle/ Suicide Club) – Sion Sono

21 Dec

Nationality: Japan

Year: 2002

Pros: Superb Japanese horror film that is not supernatural, not slasher or crazy psycho.  Instead it is that super-rare type of horror that manages to be something else entirely and becomes an important allegory about life as we know it.  What one might term painful but necessary.

Cons: That bloody red paint!!!

A busy day at Shinjuku station, Tokyo.  Trains are coming and going.  People swarm – smart businessmen, giggling children – travellers.  It is a noisy, frenetic place.  Then a train approaches – and suddenly, out of the crowd, a swarm of young schoolgirls have suddenly materialised on the platform edge, still chattering gaily.  Waiting for a train, one supposes.  But they are standing in a perfect line, hand in hand.  And they cheerfully cry “and a one, and a two, and a three” . . .

54 schoolgirls plunge off the platform in front of the train.  Still beaming happily.  The mess is so extreme that the train can’t even break properly, it’s breaks rendered useless by human grease . . .

The above scene that opens this film is so infamous that there is little point in trying to hide it for spoiler reasons.  Sono films it well and subtly considering the material and when you consider what a voyeuristic mess it could be.  It is the sheer weirdness of it that impresses more than the horror.  The feeling that something ‘socially bizarre’ has happened, in spite of the over-liberal use of red paint.  And that feeling is far more crucial that it at first seems.  It is played like one of those flash mob videos – a touch of complete strangeness suddenly erupting in the middle of perfect normalcy.  Only instead of a crowd attacking each other with pillows or freezing still in a supermarket, 54 happy schoolgirls suddenly link hands in an orderly line and plunge gaily off the platform . . .

The first of many many MANY suicides.

I had heard that Sion Sono’s Suicide Circle was something special – an infamous and mesmerising and very complex film.  Like many of the best, it annoyed as many people as it wowed and talk of its power and complexity achieved an almost legendary status, as did the hate-reviews from those who seemed personally offended by it, one reviewer even expressing the desire to ‘break Sono’s neck’.  No one has ever says it was boring – people either loathed it or worshipped it, some of both understanding it and some not.  And that means that this film has to be having a very strong impact on people, regardless of their rating.  This certainly made it required viewing.

Maybe you would like to break my neck as well, Mr. IMDB Reviewer, because, having actually watched it at last, I will stick my neck right out for you and call it one of the most interesting Japanese horror films I have ever seen.  Also one of the most complex and enigmatic ones.  And most challenging.  It manages that because the approaches and techniques it uses are so unexpected from a horror film.  And because, in the end, it has taken us to places expected from neither this movie or any other.  Profound places.

I call it a horror movie because there is little doubt of its genre allegiance.   The first part of the film has some familiar horror movie moments that are almost reassuring in their familiarity.  Though nothing that jars or irritates, with the one exception of the special effects and the fake blood. Which is handled rather ridiculously, to my mind.  And yet there is something about the film that is very different to most that horror produces.  That, to use an over-used phrase, transcends its horror foundations.  Crucially, by the end we realise that it is not supernatural horror at all.  No ghosts or evil entities or possession drive these suicides.  It is not psycho horror either – though occasionally it gives the illusion of brushing close.  For a while, it seems that we are dealing with straightforward incitement to suicide by a loopy character taking advantage of the powers of the internet – but then even that crumbles and we are left with . . . what?  Just what is this film?  I am tempted to try making up a new (to me) classification actually – sociological horror.  That is, horror where the central driving influence comes from nothing supernatural or even out of the ordinary – but lies directly within the normal life and society that surrounds us.  Sociological Horror thus has the potential for incredible power since, instead of rampaging evil, it can simply point a finger at the perfectly normal world out there and show you things more horrific than any ghost.  Horror that is an indictment of normal life.

After the bloodbath at Shinjuku, it seems for a while as though we are in quite normal spooky story territory as the detectives try and work out what happened and what is going on in this city.  It is a detective story at this point.  A portrayal of weary and bewildered Japanese detectives slowly coming to realise that there is more going on than meets the eye.  Suicides are occurring all over the city in extraordinary numbers.  There is talk of a ‘Fad’ among the young people – no surprise in a world where fads rule.  There is talk of a suicide club.  But strange and gruesome artefacts are turning up accompanying some of the suicides – long, rolled chains made of dozens, hundreds of small pieces of human skin sewn together.  Some with tattoos.  Skin from different people.  Eerie websites haunt the net, seemingly connected to the suicide spate and even tallying them.  Even tallying them before they happen.  So far, we are still very much in J-horror territory – but that doesn’t last.  Throughout the film, there is another presence that becomes more and more apparent – that of civilization itself.  The TV is filled with images of the latest idol phenomena – a band of singers, children of 12, 13, 14 whose name keeps changing.  Sometimes it is Dessert – sweet and sickly.  But tellingly it sometimes becomes transmuted into Desert – the barren wasteland.  Singing over and over – the film hammering home people’s addiction to unreal idolization and the general sheep-like nature of society, lost without their fashions to follow and their idols to worship.  These pretty dancing kids are a constant annoying presence and everyone loves them.  By the end of the film though, nothing is as it seems.  Even this.  Sono has managed to completely overturn all our expectations and taken us to some very bizarre and enigmatic places.

Ok – there are a few things that grate, which I should perhaps get off my chest.  Personal opinions and all that.  The biggest annoyance is the special effects.  I am usually quite forgiving of those but in this case I was getting quite exasperated . . . well, minimal research demonstrates that human beings are NOT water balloons filled with red paint who can burst over wide areas.  The always-liberal Japanese use of fake blood has been taken to the nth degree here, becoming the most surreal element in the film.  Restraint anyone???  Ok, so Sono’s handling of these mass-suicides is unusually well done and handled with great subtlety, but they still look a bit like an explosion in a paint factory sometimes.  Also there are a few plot holes – and passages that just don’t ring true.  But even this doesn’t temper my opinion that this is one of the best horror movies out there.

This is where you should perhaps watch the film – then come back and read the rest, because this is such a bizarre film that I have to analyse it a little.  And that means spoilers.  And this is such a twisting, turning journey that I would hate to spoil it for you!

*    *    *

“Here’s my logic – the director was a screwed up person in the first place. Who films gay porn for a living? there’s got to be something wrong with him. His friend committed suicide, he got even more phsycotic (sic.). So he shot a film about what goes on in head and showed it to everyone – thanks man – very deep (no sarcasm this time). [. . .]

I have to give it to Sono (the director), you have created one of the most disturbing/ridiculous pictures . . . . You can shoot someone in front of me and I’d be pretty much OK with it, but you show me a movie like this and I want to pound your face in. [. . .]

There you have it – this movie is full of crap, and if I ever meet Sono – I will break his neck.”

maxzhukov from United States – IMDB

Kind of humorous, huh?  Actually, I quickly gave up reading through the IMDB reviews because the display of hostility and ‘western ignorance trampling all over eastern sensibilities’ was making my stomach turn over.  Often it is “I don’t get it” transmuting into “I hate it” as is so often the case.  Aah the vitriol that this film generates!  It is, if anything, even worse than the flap about The Isle.  To be fair though, even the Japanese had trouble with this one. People everywhere react with rage, bolstering that with incoherent insults that never seemed to find any actual point to convey that doesn’t collapse under analysis.  Either that or picking minor plot holes in it that have little to do with the actual message or scope of the film, which is essentially allagorical..

“54 girls jump happily to the oncoming train. This is ridiculous – it just cannot happen. Director failed to show why they did it, even in this movie’s reality. I don’t care what you do to these girls, they won’t do it. If you can’t even show why they did it, how am I supposed to believe that its even possible? Here’s an analogy – I kicked a monkey and it turned into an elephant. I don’t know how or why – it just did it.

Director’s message is: They just did it and I do not know why. Thanks – very deep.”

maxzhukov from United States – IMDB

Sorry sir – but you are completely wrong.  The Director knows precisely why it happened – and told us why it happened.  You just didn’t see it.  It is right there in the film if you would care to actually listen to what it is telling you.

The obvious cause of the flap is that the film – especially the ending – is far from clear cut and is highly enigmatic.  Nothing is easily explained (a dangerous trick when conveying such dark and painful messages as this film does).  I sometimes suspect that a disturbingly large amount of these more complex Japanese movies gets lost in translation – which of course also means lost in the cultural shift.  And even more gets lost in the viewing, especially if you have a mind like Mr. Maxzhukov From United States, who doesn’t seem to have actually tried very hard to tune himself to the wavelength of this film.  Japan is a very similar culture in some ways – enough for the critiques the film contains to have equal relevance here.  But it is also very different, with an entirely different religious and cultural foundation.  It is almost certainly very hard to get a handle on without some experience of the Japanese aesthetic – but I could rephrase that.  It is a very hard film to get a handle on without opening yourself up to it on its own terms and succeeding in listening to what it is actually saying.  To me, even cultural identity only goes so far and is only so important.  After all, any film or book becomes a direct dialogue between you and it and, at the fundamental level, I believe that this is a self-contained thing.  Awareness of the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto background and their attitude to death and reincarnation – or the cultural contradiction of ‘honourable suicide’ and ‘taboo subject’ – are only relevant up to a point.  Personally, I found this a hard film to grasp – but also a distinctly universal one.  An enigma that has to be unpicked in your own way and with an open mind.  Which is essentially what surrealism is about.

The question that is asked throughout the film is are you connected to yourself? And that question is the key.  What does it mean?  Some have ‘translated’ it to mean ‘do you believe in yourself’ – and that is a part of it.  But even so, the sense on connection and disconnection within us is a quite profound and universal one, regardless of the culture that you are founded on.  Disconnect means more than just being wrapped up in work, caught up in trends, fashions and idolisation.  It means not being connected to yourself as an authentic and truthful human being.  One may be connected to others – to duties, to loves, to commitments.  But connected to yourself?  And that is possibly one of the main causes of modern angst.

The detective investigation winds on in this sick city, going nowhere.  An arrest is made of a loopy singer* who seems to be behind the suicides – possibly inciting them – but this only proves to be a complete nothing.  A nicely orchestrated ‘false ending’ to the story in fact.  Whatever is causing this just continues, unstoppable in its mystery.  Like a weather phenomenon.  Or like a disease with purging symptoms.  At this point, the story gives up being a detective story.  It climbs up onto a new level and suddenly the familiar trappings of the first part of the film are revealed as totally insignificant.  This ‘detective mystery’ will never be solved, because it is something utterly beyond the possibility of any policeman to understand.

When we finally find out who/what is behind all this, it is at once not very surprising and extremely surprising.  After watching that annoying kid band singing away throughout the film, it is not so surprising to find that it is children agenting this suicide spate, but the way it is handled is totally surprising.  It is surprising because, in the end, the title of this film holds up and that is what makes it such a disturbing (and powerful) story.  This is indeed a suicide circle – not a murder circle.  People do this because they want to – need to.  Not through coercion.

*Bloody hell – I am gobsmacked!  This character has a crazy horrible absurdism that either works perfectly or completely turns you off, depending on your point of view.  I have to ask if those two qualities are mutually exclusive though . . .

“The director has issues. He films gay porn for a living and his friend committed suicide. But look “Mr.Director”, leave the little children alone man, they did not tell him to kill himself – I’m pretty sure.”

Guess who – IMDB

While there may be no single ‘right’ way of looking at this film, there are almost certainly wrong ways, and one of those is to see and dismiss this suicide spate as an ‘evil’ inflicted on the world by some horror-show force.  Evil Kids in other words.  This is no tale of possessed or evil kids, that much is certain.  Instead we have Children, with ‘the perception that comes with innocence’, essentially ‘passing judgement’ and facilitating what might be termed a cleansing and healing suicide.  By asking that question – are you connected to yourself? One could say that children are still somewhat sensitive to the world.  Still somewhat holding a lingering touch of fundamental humanity, which only gets lost as civilization begins its grind*.  Maybe this film creeps people out because it resonates with a certain truth to it.  We don’t like to admit that the changes that happen to us as we grow up and grow into this sickly world could be changes for the worse rather than the better, but I am quite prepared to believe that children know something that we have forgotten and, in their simplicity, be perfectly placed to take on the allegorical role as judges of the world.  So, in dramatic contrast to the ‘evil children’ way of seeing this, it becomes almost a tribute to the power of childhood innocence.  And even that seemingly annoying band of TV idols seem to change at the end of the film.  Becoming something else that has taken on this crass media-culture form because that is the only way to reach out and touch and convey their message – to those who want to hear it . . .

So is the super-bleak message that this film ultimately conveys that death and suicide are only a natural and normal part/symptom of living the troubling life that is civilization as we know it?  Not a comforting message maybe – but that doesn’t make it wrong.  Suicide becomes a form of salvation – regardless of whatever religious background you have when watching this film, or whether you believe in reincarnation, heaven, the flying spaghetti monster or nothing at all.

And at last the happy smiles of those 54 school girls come clear.

*You also have to remember the role that children play in Japanese life.  In Japan, their innocence is given the credit that it deserves.  In dramatic contrast to the west, where they tend to be seen as faintly embarrassing primitives who need to be moulded into a respectable form for civilization.  And that is another key that helps unlock this film and the bizarre role children play in it.

To actually come out and say such things in a film – especially a horror film* – is incredibly brave.  And it can hardly avoid being controversial.  No surprise then that it sets people like Mr. Maxhukov From United States fuming.  Predictably enough, the film also generates flap as people see it as ‘encouraging’ suicide among the sheep-like masses.  Well – I am doubtful as that is way too simplistic of course.  It is a classic false criticism that a work of art that tries to take a deep long and careful look at a certain subject that people don’t like is inevitably encouraging it.  This is why it is next to impossible to produce a proper film or novel about paedophilia, for example.  And suicide is another of these subjects with a certain amount of hysteria connected to it.  Many films tackle it of course – but this one remains one of the most original and thought-provoking outlooks on the subject.  It is perhaps not surprising on one level at any rate.  As maxzhukov so elegantly explained on IMDB, a close friend of the director killed himself out of the blue for no apparent reason.  So it is only natural for him to sit down and try to think about the phenomenon.  And only natural to create this haunting allegory about it.  And if we don’t think about these things then what can we do except drift?  If we cannot embrace the horror of normal life and accept suicide’s role in it, then that horror can never change and that, in itself, becomes a form of complacency.  And that is what really encourages suicide.  That feeling of the unchanging nature of the world around you.  That you can neither change or escape from its wrongness.  And I should know, because suicide has been prominent in my mind on more than one occasion.

*He says with seeming contradiction – but it isn’t really since horror remains one of the most emotionally conservative genres.  Usually.

In the enigmatic end though, the message of Suicide Circle seems more positive than this – or at least very far from direct and clear cut.  The enigmatic final scenes of Suicide Circle are not horrific.  Any trappings of the horror movie have been left far behind now.  And we are left with a strange dark and extremely moving mystery.  Even as one sees civilization convulsing in this cathartic spasm of suicides (that seems totally fantastical on the one hand and makes perfect sense on the other), one is also left with a feeling of the power of life that can cut through this easy death and lack of connection.  The question are you connected to yourself? has two possible answers.  And to answer with a ‘yes’, as the final character does, inevitably comes with defiance.  And defiance is a good thing, worthy of the rousing cheer that greets it in the film.  I suspect that sensitive people who have actually looked suicide in the face, or thought bitterly about it in the lonely nights, might understand the feelings that the end of this film generates.  And can maybe find strength in it, not horror.  So the ultimate message is one of hope.  And of a certain faith in the human entity.

Hatsujô kateikyôshi: sensei no aijiru [The Glamorous Life of Satchiko Hanai] – Mitsuru Meike

21 Dec

Nationality: Japan (Where else?)

Year: 2003

DVD details: My Region 1 disk is rather poor actually, though i am unsure if that is the fault of the film or the DVD producer. Subtitles are non-removable but at least it is free from any blurring or pixilation.

I was resisting writing a review of this one so soon after Tokyo X, lest it seems that this site is too fixated on skin-flicks.  But . . . well . . .

By the time I had finished watching this story of a genius call-girl with a hole in her head who initiates nuclear Armageddon while spending most of the film on her back, blathering about Noam Chomski and Susan Sontag . . .

By the time I had watched said genius call girl being raped by the disembodied finger of George W Bush while being lectured from a grainy TV screen by one of the most bizarre animations of a US president I have ever seen . . .

By the time I had finished watching the shootout with fat North Korean security agents and the chilling ultimate use that Mr. Bush’s itchy ‘finger on the button’ always did seem destined for . . . while toy plastic American soldiers react in consternation . . .

Well – did I have any choice?

Let me get one thing straight here.  While Ringu and Dark Water and others may be amazing films, it is the quality of strangeness that is the main criteria for this site.  This is a site about the unexpected and the downright crazy.  Even the creatively fucked up.  Why?  Because it’s fun, these outer limits!  It demands a certain tolerance and love of the crazy, the dubious and the clumsy and, I think, is quite revealing about human creativity.  And also because it is too often marginalised because of their connotations (skin flick? Slasher movie?), even though it only takes a moment to realise how pointless that is, especially where Japanese stuff is concerned.  Many people have raved about J-Horror – see the wonderful snowblood apple for one of the best.  I want to add my voice to the more far-out creations.  And, considering the extremely rich seam that the Japanese pink films present, it is the duty of any self-respecting hunter of strange stuff to check them out. Yes?

The reason must lie in the nature of the pink film genre itself.  It seems that this is just about the only place where young maverick ‘underground’ or ‘far out’ directors have much hope of getting something made.  And just as long as there is enough skin etc. to keep the aficionados happy (it’s probably in the contract somewhere), you can do what you damn well please.  Yes yes, even art if you want, like Tokyo X.  Absurdist surrealism? – fine!  Political satire?  Fine!  George W Bush’s disembodied finger and panicking GI Joe-type dolls?  Yeah whatever.  I have to say – I find that admirable in a way!  Of course – the sheer amount of sex that results is a matter for individual consideration.  Do you care about that?  Does it bother you?  Will it utterly prevent you from looking at anything else in the film as it twists your perverted sense of aesthetics and of what is right and wrong?  I have to admit that it pushes things sometimes since Satchiko does literally get through most of the male cast at one point or another, with very little rhyme or reason.  However, i think that if you are going to get anywhere in Japanese films – pink films especially – you have to be able to accept the strange aesthetics sometimes inflicted. And the pink film foundation is an aesthetic of some kind. And actually though, compared to gratuitous sex in the west, this particular totally gratuitous sex is at least integrated somewhat better as a distinctly pinku part of Satchiko’s strange madness!

So, now for the important stuff. In this case, alongside the decided visual overload of Emi Kuroda’s backside and other bits (*ahem* not entirely unpleasant by any means – let’s be honest), we have the strange and slightly bizarre tale of a cheerful Japanese call girl who, as a bystander, gets a bullet in the brain during an assassination.  Instead of killing her (as it should), she begins to change, developing a ravenous need for information and spouting what is supposed to be advanced philosophy.  Her taste buds are playing up and her libido is going through the roof (always helpful in a pink film, isn’t it!) – all told, she is well and truly messed up by this head trauma.  And then there arrives on the scene the disembodied finger of Mr George W. Bush, the now ex president of the united states that a few people may have heard of.

Yup – that’s what I said.  The disembodied finger of Mr George W. Bush.  Actually, it is a clone of the finger, kept in a metal cylinder – just in case the all-important presidential fingerprint is ever needed in some recognition system when the original is not available to perform the service.  In short, it is the ‘finger on the button’ equivalent of writing down your passwords and, given that a North Korean agent is very keen to find this finger and that there is something very macabre lurking in the North Korean mountains, just about as secure!

It may be a clone, but that doesn’t stop it following Satchiko around, talking to her, getting . . . decidedly intimate with her – etc etc.  If your life-long passion has been to watch a pretty Japanese girl getting – er – fingered by one of the most infamous presidents in US history who isnt actually there – well, your search is over.  Satchiko, the finger and the sinister Korean agent are all on a collision course – and one of these three will bring about nuclear Armageddon.  It isn’t who you are probably thinking either.  And it isn’t the OTHER one you are probably thinking . . .

Hang on – let’s just hold up a moment here.  Re-read what I just said.  This is a porn flick – about a girl with a hole in her head – who brings about nuclear Armageddon – with the help of George W. Bush’s disembodied finger . . .

I mean – how do you come up with something like that? I swear to you – only the Japanese!  Only the Japanese could possibly be able to embrace such dubious randomness and somehow produce a film out of it.  A film that is totally ludicrous and silly and embarrassing – and yet, just, sort of, well . . . works!  No wonder reviewers describe this ‘wet-dream for intellectuals’ as a brain-melting experience.

Enter this film and you wave bye bye to logic, it’s as simple as that.  That isn’t exactly a criticism of course – more of a road sign that reads ‘Caution! End of Paved Surface Ahead’.  A warning that what we are in for could be disorienting and bumpy.  The strange powers that Satchiko has acquired are anything but focused and basically consists of whatever happens along that is useful to the plot.  At one point, you can look into that hole in her head and see . . . visions.  Sometimes she can see the future.  Sometimes it can guide her to places.  Sometimes she can converse with Bush’s finger by pressing it into the hole.  It is all very random.  The philosophy this ‘genius’ spouts is also largely hokey, I suspect – the ‘good bits’ snipped from Wikipedia or equivalent – but that doesn’t really matter as that in itself is basically a symptom of the strange changes that she has suffered since taking that bullet in the head.  And of course, the borderline between genius and madness is very thin.  And in her case, so is the boundary between genius and channelling information like a super-efficient parrot.  But the strangest thing about the whole film is the undefined ‘message’.  That is a horrible term and I am reluctant to use it but, even though the politics included in here has all the subtlety of a clog dance with a sledge hammer, one is still left wondering whether this film has a pro-war or anti-war sentiment.  And the answer appears to be neither.  Is Satchiko mad?  She’s – well – nice!  She’s a sweet-natured airhead, not a hellcat. Is she possessed by the evil George Bush’s finger?  Is she a negative force – even as she screws everyone in sight in her friendly way, simultaneously spouting Noam Chomsky et all?  Is there really any more to this story than “Oh dear – war.  It exists.  Aaaaagghh it’s GWB!  Hahaha I got you Satchiko.  Once I am inside you, you can never escape.  Then woohooo KABLAAAAAM!” Maybe there isn’t.  This is no ‘profound fable’ and the word subtle took one look at this story and stamped off in a huff to bother Takashi Miike instead.  And you know what – it may be frustrating but I kind of love it for just dancing its dance without adopting some ponderous anti-war or twisted pro-war outlook.  For my money, it succeeds almost perfectly at being what it wants to be – fun, crazy, stupid, sexy, wtf?, surreal, trippy and all the other adjectives that you can think of for a story like this.  And it definitely has that spark that enriches the stupid, crazy and wtf and makes it into something just a little special. Its freedom from logic is great and is not so far removed from surrealism.  And one is left unsure whether to laugh or cry – whether to be chilled to the bone or turned on.  The final scene – as the bullet suddenly falls out of her head and she becomes the cheerful airhead that she always was, even as three sinister contrails streak across the sky overhead – is downright chilling, both from within the film and the real world surrounding it.

Wet dream for intellectuals, my arse – its more like a dopey trip for fed-up, burnt out intellectuals who have lost all faith in logic AND philosophy.  Like me.  *ahem*

EXTE: Hair Extensions – Sion Sono

21 Dec

EXTE

Nationality: Japan

Totally whacked out horror comedy about hair and hairdressing – as lunatic a film as they come and filled with both laugh out loud and cringe-worthy moments.

Soooooo . . . what do you get when Sion Sono, the bleak and severe genius director of Suicide Circle, turns his attention to making a comedy?  A . . . well . . . sod it, yes.  A comedy.

Answer: One of the most freakish and squirm-inducing blends of sheer terror and giggling I have partaken in!  I don’t often find myself laughing out loud when by myself – less still at a ‘horror’ movie – but this superbly whacked out horrorshow about hair and hairdressing just had me staring at the screen with my jaw hanging down and going “heheheheeee” – it really was that good.

And yet – this is Sono.  This is the man behind the mighty and mightily depressing Suicide Circle, so it is no surprise to find that under the crazy goings on is that same sense of the bleakness of the world and some savage portrayals of the human condition – sometimes verging on the heartbreaking.

Somewhere in the world, a young girl suffers a truly horrendous death . . . dragged off the street, head shaved and her organs cut out for the black market organ trade.  Her body was then dumped in a shipping container and abandoned.  However – this is J-horror and instead of just dying miserably and pathetically and unable to get any kind of revenge like most of us, the justifiable rage against such a fate lives on in a murky kind of living death.  One gets the feeling that this poor girl was more outraged by loosing her hair than her organs – at least, that is where the focus lies.  And that is also why this film isn’t called EXTE: Body Extensions.  Her hair, you see, is angry.  Very angry.  And what is more, it appears to be growing.  Fast.

Cut to the morgue, where the social misfit worker whose job it is to process the dead bodies quickly makes this amazing discovery – a dead body whose hair just seems to keep growing and growing.  It’s grotesque, true.  Hair seems to be erupting all over her body – from every wound and cut and orifice – but to him it also has potential.  Commercial potential.  He has a clandestine sideline, you see – selling the finer hair that passes through his hands for use in hair extensions.  And this hair that keeps on growing could just be an inexhaustible and valuable resource . . . at least it could be if he can get the body home and ‘harvest’ it.

The only thing is – it really isn’t a very good idea to make hair extensions out of hair that is so damn angry.  Just – not a good idea at all . . .

You know – even though one of my best friends is a hairdresser, I never really thought about hair much before.  We take it for granted.  It sits there on our heads – and elsewhere – never really does anything more unexpected than blowing in our eyes or waking us up with a bad hair day.  And yet it is such a fundamental part of us.  It is the great flag of our identities.  It is like the lion’s main or the peacock’s tail – and the result of that is that we feel fragile about it.  If anything goes WRONG with hair, boy do we feel it.  Removal of hair has even been used as a punishment in various places.  And, maybe connected to that fragility, there is a distinct sense of the freakish about it as well.  Something a little strange, yes?  Of all the things to have in your mouth, a stray hair is just about the most unendurable.  That slinking hairy sensation of a long thread winding itself round your tongue and trailing down your throat – the gag reflex that follows.  Or the ingrowing hair – hair growing inside us instead of outside, forcing its way through your flesh in a perverted coil.  Even just that one freakish hair in the WRONG PLACE that you CANNOT stop fiddling with and cant wait to pluck out . . .

There’s just something about it, isn’t there.  Ok – now imagine the following:

You look in the mirror and there is a hair in your eye.  Hanging out.  You stare in puzzlement and some shock.  Why the hell is there a hair in your eye?  So you give it a gentle pull – and it comes.  And comes.  And comes.  Out from behind your eyeball – hand over hand, this huge hair . . . until suddenly poink! It’s out.  Only there’s far more than just one hair, you see.  And this hair is behaving very strangely indeed.

Now that, my friends, is horror.

And yeah – hair and horror are old playmates.  Tales of the hair that develops a life of its own – hair that runs wild – hair that is possessed – hair that becomes snakes – hair that strangles you . . . these are quite familiar, right?  A small but pervasive thread in horror – of which Sono’s film must surely be one of the best examples.

One of the defining things about Suicide Circle was its total positioning within Japanese culture, to the extent that it was a hard film to get a handle on if you weren’t highly familiar with Japanese art . . . and even then it’s a challenge.  This film is much more approachable, but you can still see the same dynamics in action.  Japanese aesthetics are on full parade here – from the early scenes where the main character more or less introduces herself to the camera in a long happily babbling monologue as she cycles to work to the cheerful way that the film takes you on a kind of crash course in hairdressing culture (focussing on this theme and milking it for all it is worth) and the constant hammering on about Japanese work ethics and working towards your dreams.  Even the slightly curious title fits. It is a VERY Japanese movie in every way – maybe even subtly ironically so (considering Sono’s inherent bleakness).  This very slightly stylised approach reminds me strongly of anime in its storytelling style – and, in my mind, invites comparisons with the loopy Uzumaki perhaps more than any other film.  In Sono’s case though, this pop culture becomes a very distinct but subtle pantomime – something consciously theatrical that he can use to stage his curious constructions.  This familiar milieu becomes a chance to explore social commentary and the human condition in ways that are much deeper than the surface gloss suggests – not afraid to make characters complex and flawed and, well, interesting.  The stylised nature of the film becomes its strongest point, meshing with what Sono wants to tell us to create a very strong aesthetic whole.

Having watched this film – with such parallels to, yet so different from Suicide Circle – it has only reinforced my feeling that Sono is one of the most interesting directors Japan has produced.  This may be a crazy horror-comedy but it is told with virtuosity and with many elements of deep interest and power.  As well as wince-inducing and hilarious, it is sometimes haunting, sad, enraging, touching, sweet, bitter, thoughtful and unexpectedly empathetic.  For what is essentially a comedy built on a farcical plot, it is uniquely powerful and intense.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge – Shōhei Imamura

21 Dec

Nationality: Japanese

Delicate and charming love story with touches of magic realism and one very strange slant that only the japanese could have come up with.

When trying to find a term that sums up this film, the words ‘Good Hearted’ seem to be inescapable.  There is such a warmth about it – a sweet, beautiful, almost comforting warmth – as warm as that warm water flowing under the bridge itself, which I shall not explain just yet.  (I want to seduce you a bit more first.)  This is an enchanting love story, a work of magic realism where reality is coloured with hints of the strange and the almost mystical.  It is filled with that sense of gentle tenderness and strong emotion that the Japanese can be so exceptionally good at – managing to convey it without any sense of mawkishness or awkwardness – and in the process overriding any expectations we may have from the basic subject matter (which I haven’t explained yet), which could so easily have been disastrous . . .

Somewhere in Tokyo lived an old man in a blue tent, full of books.  Homeless – derelict – but liked by everyone who knew him and known as the ‘Blue Tent Philosopher’.  A street genius – a wise man who never did anything in his life to escape from his tent but doesn’t seem too dismayed or unhappy about his lot.  He knows what’s important about life and it ain’t struggling to get on in a career or being competitive or ‘successful’.

And he has a story to tell.  According to his rambling chatter, shortly after the war, he left a certain treasure hidden in a distant town – in a house by a red bridge.  According to him, he never got round to going to collect it again – but there seems to be something more behind his talk on the subject than meets the eye.  Maybe it’s even true.  Eventually he dies quietly in his tent – an almost unknown but strangely significant presence no longer there.  But the story of the hidden treasure lingers in the minds of his friends.  Lingers until the recently laid off saleryman Yosuke Sasano, fed up with life in general and tangled in a far from happy marriage, decides that he has nothing to loose and goes to take a look.  I think all of us have that fantasy – of finding a treasure and finally escaping from the mundanity of existence.  It is one of the great archetypes of human imaginings and dreamings.  However, this is no ordinary treasure hunt story.  He does indeed find a treasure – but a treasure that is far more extraordinary than any hidden gold and we dive deep into a curious sexual fable and love story that only the Japanese could have come up with.

Warm Water under a Red BridgeWarm Water under a Red Bridge

Instead of treasure, it is the young woman and her seemingly senile grandmother who live in that house by the red bridge that are the real discovery.  He meets them and is quickly drawn into fascination and love – and into an entire new life in this small town.  She is no hermit or mystery figure, just a very engaging modern small-town girl – but she does have one very curious characteristic.

She produces water.

Now – oh gawd . . . this is where I have to choose my words with some care.  I just know that the moment I said that, something shifted gears in your head.  Something suddenly clammy and dirty and smelly.  And you immediately forgot my earlier words such as ‘good hearted’ and ‘entrancing’ and ‘sweet, beautiful, almost comforting’.  After all – we all produce water to one degree or another.  Whatever slang term we may care to apply to the process.  And we don’t tend to like the process much except under rare and special circumstances.  But we aint talking golden showers here in this film.  We are talking warm water under a red bridge!  Whatever that water is, it is more like some archaic mystical gift than a bodily function.  We are talking about a character blessed/cursed with some curious liquid phenomenon that seems to stand as a symbol of everything feminine and sexual.  It fills her up like emotion and sex made liquid until she has no choice but to find some way to release it – usually by doing something mildly naughty like shoplifting, to give herself a bit of a thrill, an act that tends to leave puddles in odd places around the town.

And that is how our wandering ex-saleryman finds her, and sets about making her acquaintance, still half-convinced that there is treasure hidden in that house.  Of course – there are other, better, more luxurious ways to release that water when the pressure begins to build.  Come on, admit it – few things beat sex after all, either physically, emotionally or metaphorically or anything else.  And it is not long before our ex-saleryman gets an unforgettable surprise in the form of a sexual encounter that erupts like a high-pressure hose (which sounds like a fun special effect to stage).  While he and his clothes – and the entire room! – are drying off, it quickly becomes apparent that the indivisible wheels of love and sex are in action and that he has indeed found a very curious treasure.

No matter what the twisted pressures of both modern life and classic spiritualist morality like to say, sex is a force of immense power and is fundamentally a happy force.  Not the only powerful force in life by any means, but definitely up there among the strong ones.  And this film’s frank acknowledgement of that has to be a part of its success.  The pressure of water that builds up inside our lovely water girl, which must be released somehow or else it will simply release itself, stands as a nice physical metaphor for the power of the human sexual urge itself.  In a world that sometimes seems like a sea of stories about how sex can go wrong, become something bitter or dangerous – or at the very least filled with issues and activism of some kind or other – it is kind of refreshing to encounter such a direct and positive statement about it.  Maybe the world needs to be reminded of the simple sweetness and fun of the act!  And this film manages it in such a delicate, quirky and gentle way that it really is very compelling.  Not a hint of ickyness anywhere.  Much as I hate to even mention film certification, this film only got a 15 rating. That means almost nothing of course, but might reassure some people that there is little distasteful going on here.  In this case you will just have to accept this bizarre wet element as a part of the overall tapestry of this story – and as a part of its exuberant and engaging nature.

Meanwhile, as Yosuke is only too happy to assist in the water release process and as the warm water periodically flows out of the house’s drains, into the river outside and under that red bridge (where it seems to have a positive effect on the local fish), other plot elements are winding their way through the story.  Do not forget, after all, that this started off as a treasure hunt, and the spectre/memory of that unassuming old street philosopher and his treasure is never so far away.  The film is filled with webs of seeming connection and fate that are (fortunately) not overt or hammered home.  Just a weird sense of the patterns of the world.  It is subtly done and it is maybe only when the film is over that you get a sense of what a nicely rounded off entity you have just experienced.  It ended leaving me with one of the nicest and warmest feelings I have had from a film for a long time.

The bottom line is that this is a beautiful, cute, joyous and just downright engaging work, with very good performances all round. Even the gorgeous classical score stood out as something quirkily brilliant that fits the film perfectly.

Gusha no bindume [Hellevator: The Bottled Fools] – Hiroki Yamaguchi

21 Dec

Hellevator

Nationality: Japan

Pain begets pain – brutality generates brutality.  As a society, you punish the brutality that you see but law and justice always strikes only at the last link in the chain of agony and horror.  The sickness of society and civilization are permanent no matter what the environment.  And no matter where you think the end of the line lies, there is always one last station beyond it . . .

These are the feelings that this film leaves you with – or leaves me with anyway . . . and they are not nice feelings.  I suppose you could call this a distopian film in that it portrays a horrific and sickly culture and civilization.  But really, in spite of all the stylised SF trappings, the emphasis is not on that so much as on the more intimate world of human beings in all their mixed up and borderline insane glory.

Picture to yourselves an underground civilisation.  In some ways it is similar to our own – ordinary people struggling to get on with their lives and their humanity in a strange and sterile – indeed almost alien environment (no different then to our own lives in the cities and cultures of the world).  But this is a vertical city, stretching far underground, level after level, hundred levels after hundred levels – and each level dedicated to one specific thing.  For instance, there are the Communities for Researchers and Chemical Experiments, the Communities for Cooks and Convenience Stores, the Communities for Company Housing and Single Dormitories etc.  And somewhere at the top is level 1.  But we don’t talk about that.  And as the kid innocently asks her grandmother, “What’s above level one?  Is there a level zero?”  “There’s nothing above level 1 – it’s dark and cold and scary.  Don’t ask about that, or the surveillance man will scold you.”

And of course, the only way to travel though this vertical city is by elevator – a massive vertical metro system, piloted by uniformed ladies who look like automata.  As the film starts, we are following the film’s main character, a sulky looking girl who just wants to get to or from school (providing the weird juxtaposition of a classic iconic Japanese school uniform in this bizarre underground world – I guess messing with that particular uniform would have been some kind of sacrilege!).  On the elevator ride portrayed here though, an unscheduled stop has to be made at the Communities for Convicts and Prisoners, where the normal crowd of passengers are joined by some more unwelcome company – two prisoners (one of whom speaks his words backwards) being transported to the ‘Special Disposition Bureau’ by their thoroughly nasty guards.  That is not a problem until a discarded cigarette (illegal in this civilisation) causes an explosion, disabling the vehicle and leaving them all trapped in a nice little microcosm of human existence . . .

I can see why some people don’t like this film.  Like many of the wilder Japanese SF works, it is such an intensely over the top horrorshow on the one hand and features a complex and convoluted storytelling style on the other, overall leaving a rather nasty taste in the mouth in the process.  However, the hype about the film – blathering on about rape, telepathic powers and gore – is somewhat of a disservice since rape is just a small part of the tapestry, the telepathic powers are hugely enigmatic and may not exist at all and, while it is certainly a violent movie, it is definitely not about violence as a spectacle in itself.  For me, it was an extremely successful work indeed, owing most of its effect to its visual uniqueness and its flare for atmosphere and conjuring up the world in which it takes place.  Indeed, it is probably the case that the pictures here will be of more use than anything I can say in terms of giving you an idea of what the film is like.  It’s satirical and a little absurdist on one level – a painfully immediate horror story on another.  Various words come to mind – the stylisation and over-the-top drama of cyberpunk is there of course – with 964 Pinocchio not so far away at all – and there is also something decidedly retro-futurist about it.  In that sense, it reminds me a little of Gilliam’s Brazil – though obviously much more lurid and less ‘respectable’.  Even the little details – the fantastically realised machinery that drives the elevator, the uniform of the pilot, the sinister nazi-like military / police / whatever they are all come together to make the film a visual treat (like Brazil) – and also a very uncomfortable and even depressing one (again, like Brazil).

Trapped in this small room, our cast of characters slowly but surely begins to collapse.  Having two almost ludicrously insane prisoners in the mix who quickly manage to get loose from their bonds certainly doesn’t help there, but the simple fact is that, once the momentum of breakdown begins, those two soon become almost irrelevant.  The fragility, selfishness and hidden hysteria of the basic human animal is on spectacular display here.  The film does a great job of blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality as we are left unsure how much of what is presented is real and how much is taking place inside the somewhat unhinged mind of the film’s main character.  Our schoolgirl is a highly troubled person it soon becomes apparent – seriously messed up by an abusive father, whom she ended up stabbing to death.  All this is slowly revealed through flashbacks as the pressures of this continuing nightmare begins to unhinge her troubled mind more and more.  And, as the film gets stranger and stranger, how much is real and how much is just hallucinatory?  Is the respectable looking scientist figure really a terrorist carrying a foetus infected with a lethal virus?  Is the silent teen sitting in the corner really an agent of the Surveillance bureau?  Is the pram nursed so carefully by the mother on a shopping trip really an empty sham?  Can she really read minds or is she just making up stories for herself?

In the end, this is just a little vortex that takes place – a little spiral storm of human emotion and derangement that appears for a brief flash, discharges and then passes – leaving who knows what damage for the puzzled investigators to sort out.  The representatives of justice want simple answers – but there are no simple answers.  That’s the problem with the justice system everywhere.  Pain begets pain.  Brutality engenders brutality.  Human weather phenomena swirl into being in a dizzying array of action and reaction.  The only things that can possibly be called permanent are the heartbreak and the shattered, damaged glass that is the human soul.

 

Executive Koala – Minoru Kawasaki

21 Dec

Gozu

Nationality: I’ll give you one guess

Year: 2005

Executive Koala

Aaaagggghhhh – my brain . . . my brain!!!!! It’s dripping, I swear it’s dripping . . .

You know – I really thought I had plumbed the depths of Japanese weirdness.  The Happiness of the Katakuris, Gozu, The Glamorous Life of Satchiko Hanai, FLCL, Mind Games . . . pretty strange yes?  And would you believe that I was getting complacent?  Oh BOY – *serious tone of voice*:  Never get complacent at the Japanese.  Just . . . don’t, ok?

The Japanese have this great skill, you see, that eludes most western directors – that of just letting rip in great blasts of pure streaming lunacy – having fun with no consideration of genre, integrity, expectations, sense, logic and even sanity.  Creations filled with passion, fun, terror, kitsch, trash, j-pop, high art moments, silliness . . . essentially whatever you don’t expect when you least expect it.  If they can fuck with your expectations, they will do so with great joy.  And if you said “but wait a minute, that’s not so unusual – I’ve seen stuff like that before,” based only on some pale western examples of strangeness, then I would respectfully like to correct you.  No you haven’t! Sometimes you catch whispers of it – browsing round online and glimpsing clips of Japanese game shows or getting dangerously close to otaku and catching hints of some of the more far out and obscure animations.  But even with Japanese movies and anime becoming increasingly popular in the ‘west’, this is a side to Japanese art that we rarely see in its purest form.  We think that Japanese films are ‘weird’ because we have seen Takashi Miike in action or reeled under the onslaught of FLCL, but really and truly, Miike is just the tip of the iceburg.  He is just weird enough to delight and surprise the David Lynch fans but the fact is that weirdness in Japanese culture extends way way – and I mean way beyond that.

Executive Koala

For the first half of the film, Executive Koala is pure psychological horror – from a deceptively normal opening, we slowly sink into the hallucinatory terror of your own mind crumbling and betraying you.  It is actually quite disturbing – after all, what is the worst kind of horror?  When something horrible comes at you out of the blue – or when something horrible seems to be being revealed within your own mind?  For Tamura, an ordinary day at the office becomes a nightmare as hints of his past – suggesting that he is much more horrific than he knows – unexpectedly begin to surface, suggesting buried and forgotten memories of an unspeakable nature.  You have to feel for the poor guy.  Here we are with a main character that we quite like, and suddenly we discover alongside him, that he is a horror movie villain.  It’s an unusual and highly serious shift of perception that is refreshing amid the usual blanket good guy / bad guy attitudes of so many films.

Well – it would be highly serious if he wasn’t wearing a freakin’ koala costume!

Executive Koala

After the psychological horror first half of the film, it then gets really strange.  How do you bring something like this to a conclusion?  A song and dance number court case, maybe?  Dreams within dreams?  The most absurd (and almost unscreencapable) marshal arts sequence ever set to screen?  An ending that is so random that . . . umm, hang on [Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler].  Is this all a descent into madness and fantasy, told in lurid J-pop style?  A continuation of the same slide into terror that started off so seriously, somehow getting so extreme that it passes beyond horror forever?  Probably.  Are there any levels of ‘reality’ to unthread from this and do we have any idea at what point this thing descended into dream?  You know what . . . I don’t know the answer to any of those questions for certain!  Most directors might have got nervous by this point – thinking “woah – this is getting a bit bizarre now.”  But not Minoru Kawasaki.  “Strange?  Ach, ya sods – you don’t even know what strange is!  This isn’t strange.  What else can we possibly do to make this film actually ‘unusual’.  Oooooh yeah – let’s have the lead wear a freakin’ koala costume!”  There’s one brilliant moment when a girl in a shop stops and does a double take.  “A koala?” she demands in complete bewilderment, staring after him.  That is the only moment in the film when anyone seems to express any kind of surprise at this weird surrealist touch.  Is this then the nearest to real that the film gets?  Real in the sense of being conscious of its own unreality, even from within it?  Is this whole thing, right through to the almost creepily perfect and totally reasonless happy ending, simply taking place in the mind of a lunatic?  A lunatic who may or may not be in (did I mention this?) a freakin’ koala costume.

Probably such speculation is utterly pointless and I really should just shut up.  Just get on the freakin’ train and enjoy the ride, people.  But hmm – the answer is probably yes . . . and that lunatic is probably the director.

Executive KoalaExecutive Koala

There’s no sense deluding myself of course.  I want to rave and cheer – because this is just unique in my experience.  Because it is utterly surprising in every way.  Because it is a work of freakin’ genius in its own way and is darn well made as well.  But . . . there’s no sense deluding myself . . . People will dismiss this as silly – or meaningless – or both – and this film is probably going to be too much for many people.  You possibly need a brain like mine, which has been specially trained for years on strange stuff, including loopy anime and a decided overdose of Takashi Miike, and has lost any fear of creativity without road signs, in order to really appreciate this one.  Maybe I am just an Otaku who is in waaaayyy to deep, in other words.  Or maybe not.  You decide!  If you have any interest at all in just how strange creativity can become, you owe it to yourself to watch this film.  This IS pop art, folks.  Who cares if it isn’t in a gallery – it is pure Japanese pop art genius.

Executive KoalaExecutive Koala