PLOT: A man has killed his wife, but she won’t stay dead. In an initially unrelated story, a foul-mouthed, short-tempered English hitman with a translator in tow is expanding his operations into Japan. Their plotlines intersect with those of a middle-class father who has a disaster with a celebrity hypnotist, trio of teenage burglars, and an ad exec whose absurd commercial ideas amuse only herself.
This is Gen Sekiguchi’s only feature film. He has also produced two short films and an entry in the 2011 anthology film Quirky Guys and Girls. He comes from an advertising and music video background, where he collaborates with screenwriter Taku Tada. The pair won the advertising award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Survive Style 5+ received little distribution (it garnered zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and has never been released on DVD in North America), but word of mouth on the Internet has made it into an underseen cult hit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: One character flying away on another, to the tune of “I Will Survive.” (Sure, fans already familiar with the movie may complain that this pick is a spoiler—but the new viewer will have trouble figuring out how things get to this point, right up until the very end.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Assassin with translator; pop as a microwave turkey; flying away
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Survive Style 5+ interweaves five stories–variously comic, absurd, supernatural, campy, and/or bizarre–including a series of surreal commercials imagined by one of the many oddball characters. It’s polished and stylish, yet consistently wild and unpredictable; an underground cult film that’s survived years of subpar distribution through enthusiastic word of mouth, and is just waiting to take off into the stratosphere.
PLOT: A blind sculptor kidnaps a model and imprisons her in his studio.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blind Beast scores two points in its weird ledger: one for the set design (which is almost always described as Daliesque), and another for its irrationally sadomasochistic third act. At its core, however, it’s an odd and engaging “pinku” (as Japanese softcore erotic films of the 1960s were dubbed) that’s reminiscent of 1965’s The Collector (although the scenario was adapted loosely from a Edogawa Rampo story). The sight of the sightless sculptor’s bizarro studio would have gotten Blind Beast shortlisted had we reviewed it earlier, but given the limited available slots, we see Beast as close, but not quite worthy of being named one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time.
COMMENTS: Blind Beast quickly gets in gear after the abduction, which is handled in an absurdly economical ten minutes. The blind antihero selects his model victim by feeling up a sculpture of her, then steals into her apartment posing as a masseur. With the help of his trusty sighted assistant, who also happens to be his mother, he soon has beautiful young Aki imprisoned inside his remote warehouse studio, and this is where the “fun” begins. The blind sculptor’s studio utilizes a fetishized geometry, with high-relief assemblies of (female) body parts lining each of the eight walls, enclosing two giant, pliant sculptures of prone nude women (one on her stomach, one on her back). The blind, stumbling hunter and his victim chase each through this corporeal funhouse; he clutches a giant nipple as he bargains for her compliance. Later, they will make love—of their strange sort—while rolling about on the humungous feminine torsos. You probably have never seen that before.
The middle part of the film involves Aki’s machinations as she tries to escape, until a near-miss attempt permanently costs her her freedom and sets the bizarre third act into motion. These scenes work well as a standard woman-in-peril thriller. When she fails to sneak past the blind man fail thanks to the interference of his maternal assistant, Aki switches to a psychological ploy. She pretends to fall in love with her captor and plays son and mother against each other. Of course, were she to escape so easily, the movie would end prematurely; and the movie has a better—or worse—fate in store for Aki.
The blind man’s studio is as sick a materialization of a male libido as could be imagined. His love/hate relationship with his mother suggests an Oedipal complex. Still, the psychology here is only deep by the standards of pink movies. The sadomasochistic finale, a sudden and wrenching departure from first two-thirds of the movie, is foreshadowed from the film’s earliest moments, but the movie provides no real insights into the pathology. Given the absurd heights of agonizing ecstasy its characters travel to, how could it? Their obsessions are perverse, and the tale depicts them poetically without trying to explain them. Blind Beast is surprisingly coy with its nudity, most of which is only seen in still photographs from the opening art exhibition. Mako Midori’s breasts are skillfully hidden throughout the film, and a corner of a nipple is a rare and tantalizing sight. This teasing modesty gives the erotic visuals even more impact, while serving the theme of frustrated voyeurism. Blind Beast would be nearly impossible to distribute today, through licit channels, due to its outdated attitude to consent. Seduction is important to the plot, but Aki willingly (and eagerly) surrenders only after an hour of brutal coercion. And yet, Blind Beast has a sort of innocence about it, largely due to the unreal nature of its psychodrama: a fantasy of total abandon to physical sensation far beyond any rational limits, played out in a subterranean lair of mountainous breasts, dismembered legs, and eyeballs leering from the walls. It’s a space we would never want to visit, but one we can’t look away from.
“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra
DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa
FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa
PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.
A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam; asylum masquerade
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.
Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)
“I find memories and dreams belong to the same category of artifacts. In other words, if we want to make a contrast, we have reality on one side, which is opposed by the dream, the memory or even a fantasy… They are on a different ‘layer’ than our reality and can be superimposed on it.”–Satoshi Kon (translated from the French)
PLOT: A film producer and a cameraman interview Fujiwara Chiyoko, a famous retired Japanese actress. As she tells the story of her life, they find themselves absorbed into her flashbacks, which seem to mix scenes from movies she acted in with her actual memories. Genya, the interviewer, delivers a key Chiyoko had left behind at the studio, and reveals that he has personal motives for visiting the actress.
After making Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon intended to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika (which he eventually made in 2003), but financial considerations led him to tackle this less expensive project first.
Kon co-wrote the film with Sadayuki Murai, who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue.
Tied for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival (in a deadlock with Spirited Away).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Because they are striking, suggest transcendence, and bookend the movie, it’s the shots of Chiyoko in a spacesuit linger in the mind. Her discovery of a mysterious easel set up on the moon’s “pure white landscape” ends up as one of the strangest sights in Millennium Actress.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Free cameraman with flashback; Godzilla cameo; lunar easel
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An interviewer tries to get to the root of a famous retired actress’ life, including the significance of a mysterious object (a key) from her childhood. A series of decades-spanning flashbacks paint a portrait of a life spent chasing an unobtainable goal; only, the memories get mixed up with scenes from historical epics she starred in. It’s like Citizen Kane, but with ninja battles.
U.S. trailer for Millennium Actress
COMMENTS: Although much of the movie is a retrospective of Japanese cinema from the 1920s on, fictional screen icon Chiyoko Fujiwara’s career spanned less than a century, much less than a millennium. So how does the title Millennium Actress arise? From the fact Continue reading 317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)→
“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”
“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”
–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)
DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto
FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama
PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.
This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in Akira Kurosawa‘s Ran.
The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama. Matsumoto released it separately.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.
Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses
PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.
COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.
As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.
Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “must see” status.
To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).
FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)
PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castleand Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.
COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).
Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.
I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of Paul Lynde in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.
In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).
FEATURING: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite
PLOT: A Japanese schoolgirl finds herself shunted through many different realities, all of which want to kill her and her companions.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At an earlier stage of this project’s development, Tag might have been shortlisted. This quintessentially Japanese mix of exploitation and surrealism will hit the sweet spot for fans of smart splatterpunk, Sono-style, but doesn’t go far enough above and beyond to merit consideration for the List, considering the shrinking number of available slots.
COMMENTS: There’s no denying that Tag‘s opening gambit, featuring two busloads of schoolgirls sheared in half by unseen forces, is one of the more memorable opening statements in recent movie history. If the rest of the movie never quite catches up to that level of excitement, it still leaves one hell of an impression on the viewer. It leaves quite an impression on lone survivor Mitsuko, too. In silent shock, she wanders into her schoolyard, where everyone is going about the day normally and treats her as if she‘s the one who’s insane, blubbering about a killer wind. Everyone, that is, except for her girlfriend nicknamed “Sur” (for “surreal”), who explains about alternate realities and the butterfly effect. This sophomore-level philosophy gains some credibility when the school’s teachers pull out machine guns and start mowing down their students (in a sort of nasty reversal of the final scene of If….). Mitskuko is again the lone survivor, fleeing the carnage into yet another, equally dangerous version of reality…
Fun Tag drinking game: take a swig every time a male actor appears onscreen. Tag is so female-centric that, despite the fetish schoolgirl uniforms and the ample panty shots, = it’s hard not to see it as Sono’s feminist statement. What form that statement takes isn’t one-hundred percent clear, but it would seem to involve something about the various (limiting) roles females are forced into in Japanese society (by males) and the resulting anxiety that engenders in young women trying to establish their own identity. The ending revelation, which seems intended to tie everything together and reveal a hidden logic, is underwhelming. A lot still remains unexplained when the curtain falls—for example, the pig-man. In the end, I suppose you just have to take Sur’s advice: “Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you.”
“When you are watching the film, you sometimes feel like losing yourself in whichever world you are watching, real or virtual. But after going back and forth between the real and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong. That in essence is the whole concept. It is rather hard to explain.”–Satoshi Kon on Perfect Blue
DIRECTED BY: Satoshi Kon
CAST: Voices of Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Masaaki Ōkura; Ruby Marlowe (English dub), Wendee Lee (English dub), Bob Maex (English dub)
PLOT: Japanese pop idol Mima Kirigoe decides to retire from her group CHAM in to become an actress and change her image. She joins a soap opera where the storyline mysteriously reflects her own experiences, endures a stalker who posts intimate details from her life in a fake online diary, and finds several of her co-workers murdered. These events launch her into a psychotic identity crisis.
A protégé of Katsuhiro Ohtomo, Perfect Blue was the first full-length film Satoshi Kon directed after working as a writer and layout animator.
Perfect Blue was based on the novel “Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis” by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. After a failed attempt at a live-action adaptation, Kon was approached to direct an animated version. The screenplay, however, didn’t interest Kon, who was eventually allowed to make any changes he wished as long as he kept three of the story’s elements: “idol”, “horror” and “stalker.” Kon said “the idea of a blurred border between the real world and imagination” was one of his contributions.
Sadly, Kon died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at only 46 years old, with only four feature films to his name.
One of Kon’s notable disciples, Darren Aronofsky, wrote a eulogy for that was published in the retrospective “Satoshi Kon’s Animated Works.” Kon’s work has influenced Aronofsky, with the harshest calling Black Swan (2010) a “rip-off” of Perfect Blue. Rumors suggest that Aronofsky bought the rights for a live-action remake of Blue; once the plans didn’t work out, he used them instead to emulate the film’s “bathtub sequence” in Requiem for a Dream.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mima’s doppelganger jumping between lampposts provides the most striking of many memorable compositions.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lamppost-leaping phantasm; ghost emailing stalker; middle-aged idol
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though it takes its time, Perfect Blue is an effective psychodrama taking place in the mind of a despairing protagonist. By the time fiction, reality, fears and projections start to cross, and the psychosexual and horror elements enter the scene, you will know for sure that you’re watching an unconventional film, with an atmosphere likely to remind you of both a giallo and a Lynchian psychic labyrinth.