Tag Archives: Japanese

286. AUDITION (1999)

Ôdishon

It’s a pretty strange script, he must’ve been taking some really bad drugs when he was writing this stuff.”–Takashi Miike on Daisuke Tengan’s Audition script

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu Aoyama decides it is time to marry again, but he has no idea how to meet an appropriate mate. His movie producer friend comes up with a plan: they will hold a fake audition for a movie role where the widower can secretly interview dozens of women. Aoyama becomes smitten with shy, mysterious Asami and asks her out; but when she disappears just as things start to heat up between them, he goes on a quest to find her, only to discover that his ideal love may not be the innocent creature she seems.

Still from Audition (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a novel of the same title by Ryū Murakami.
  • This was only Eihi Shiina’s second acting role, and her first lead, after a career as a model.
  • Along with than the relatively tame 1998 drama Bird People in China, Audition was Takashi Miike’s breakout film, after specializing mainly in yakuza pictures seldom seen outside of Japan.
  • Audition was ranked #21 in Time Out’s 2016 List of the 100 Best Horror Films. and included in Time’s 2007 Top 25 Horror Films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Poster and cover images always feature Asami holding a syringe, a moment that hints at bad things to come. But the weirder images that sticks in my mind are the shots of the mysterious beauty sitting in her apartment, head down, hair covering her face, telephone within arm’s reach. The implication is that she has been sitting there, motionless, in a trance for the entire time she has been offscreen, just waiting for Aoyama’s call. Also, she has something lying in the background. Something wrapped in a burlap bag…

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Thing in the bag; disembodied tongue; torture hallucinations

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Takashi Miike’s most accomplished film, Audition initially shocks because of how normal it seems, before the director slyly pulls the rug from under our feet and launches us headfirst into a nightmare of pain. Fortunately, a perfectly positioned 13-minute hallucination sequence gives this movie the surreal hook (meathook, as it were) needed to elevate this master of the perverse’s best-made movie onto the list of the weirdest movies ever made.


Trailer for Audition

COMMENTS: Audition‘s broad outline is this: an older man falls for a Continue reading 286. AUDITION (1999)

285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

“A guy with a TV for a head and a girl with a panda-like mark on her face find themselves naked on Earth with no recollection of how they got there. After attempting to violently acquire food and clothes, they get arrested and sent to the Lunar prison Dead Leaves… and things get weirder from there.”–Dead Leaves synopsis from the listicle “15 Bizarre Anime That Make You Wonder ‘Wtf Did I Just Watch?’

DIRECTED BY: Hiroyuki Imaishi

FEATURING: Voices of Takako Honda, Kappei Yamaguchi, Amanda Winn Lee (English dub), Jason Lee (English dub)

PLOT: Pandy, a woman with mismatched eyes, and Retro, a man with a television for a head, awaken naked with no memories and immediately go on a crime spree. Quickly arrested, they are sent to Dead Leaves, a prison housed on what remained of the crumbling moon, where they have sex and then arrange a prison break. Pandy grows pregnant and comes to term in a day, and faces a giant caterpillar monster with the help of her precocious newborn son.

Still from Dead Leaves (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • The directorial debut of Hiroyuki Imaishi, who had worked as an artist on many animes, including the TV version of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and it’s bizarre theatrical incarnation.
  • Released as an OVA (original video animation, a common direct-to-video release strategy in Japan).
  • Dead Leaves was made with the American and European secondary markets in mind. The English dub was made contemporaneously with the Japanese version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dead Leaves‘ images, while carefully painted, streak by almost too fast for the eye to register, leaving an impression of havoc rather than focusing on particular images. Since the main characters—especially monitor-faced Retro—appear most often, it’s their faces that stick most in the memory.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: TV-headed Retro-reprobate; penis drill; inexplicable psychedelic caterpillar

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Leaves moves so fast and makes so little sense that it’s the equivalent of putting an ultraviolent manga in a high-speed blender and trying to read it while the pieces swirl around. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, but somehow involves mutant clones and a psychedelic caterpillar. Weird? Hell yes. Recommended? Well, definitely not to epileptics. Even for older folks with a healthy neurobiology, the breakneck pacing is as likely to induce a headache as an adrenaline rush. It’s definitely one-of-a-kind, though, and as an experiment in compressing as much berserk and illogical anime flavor as possible into as short a running time as possible, it’s worth a look.


Short clip from Dead Leaves

COMMENTS: Although the director advised the audience at Dead Continue reading 285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

LIST CANDIDATE: TAMPOPO (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jûzô Itami

FEATURING: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, , Fukumi Kuroda

PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.

Still from Tampopo (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.

COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.

Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.

I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.

The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category…. the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd,” who simply said “Tampopo is a weirdo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWILIGHT OF THE COCKROACHES (1989)

Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare

DIRECTED BY: Hiroaki Yoshida

FEATURING:  Kaoru Kobayashi, Setsuko Karasuma, Kanako Fujiwara

PLOT: A colony of cockroaches lives in happy comfort in the apartment of a lonely slob, but that all changes the day a girlfriend moves in and takes over cleaning the place and eradicating the pests.

Still from Twilight of the Cockroaches (1989)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As noted elsewhere on this site, the bar for weirdness in Japanese anime is set pretty high, because the genre itself is such a wild frontier. Twilight of the Cockroaches sets itself apart by being half-animated and half-live-action, and by being about the politics of cockroach tribes. If that in itself isn’t compelling enough, any film whose IMDB page’s plot keywords list includes the phrase “talking turd” pretty much demands our consideration.

COMMENTS: The present author is aware of exactly two commercial films in which cockroaches make up the majority of the cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment, and I’m reveiwing other one now. Of the two, Twilight of the Cockroaches wins easily for “weirdest cockroach movie.” The comparison has to stop there, because the two movies are entirely opposite in tone. A critter’s eye view of a society of anthropomorphic non-humans, Cockroaches has more in common with Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh than an MTV-sponsored slacker comedy. It pounds in a heavy political message, possibly related to Hiroshima or Auschwitz, though the director declared it to be about Japan; fan bases debate it to this day. Fill in your own country and political philosophy here.

But for those of you without too much book-learnin’, this is a movie about cockroaches. Naomi is a cockroach waif—“19 in cockroach years”—who serves as our narrator and has “never experienced terror.” She and the rest of her vermin society reside in the apartment of Saito, a human bachelor whose deadly sins include sloth and gluttony, allowing the cockroaches to live in fat contentment. The roaches worship Saito as a god, giving thanks for his sloppy leftovers as they mistake his neglect for benevolence. Sage, the “great leader” of this society, is a reassuring father to his people, ringing with praise for their benevolent human. Naomi is engaged to the stable suitor Ichiro, but she pines for Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe. Hans brings grim stories of other apartments where cockroaches fight for survival against humans determined to annihilate them, which is shocking news to Naomi in her peaceful utopia.

Hans returns to his side of the apartment complex, while Naomi contracts wanderlust, exploring the outside world in her quest for the truth. She sets across the vacant lot next to the apartment to find Hans, braving all kinds of hazards—and meeting a helpful turd—along the way. The elders of Naomi’s tribe lament how entitled and shiftless the modern generation is, as the young ones scoff at the warnings that the good times could abruptly end. That foreshadowing comes to pass when Saito, somehow, gets a girlfriend, who moves in with him and brings with her a holocaust of housecleaning and bug-killing. This forces the roaches to confront the error of their complacency. It will be up to Hans’ militarized comrades to show the way forward for roachkind.

The slow, lethargic pace of this film, scored to soulful, lonely piano solos, makes it a chore to sit through. And yet, just when you’re ready to take the film on the serious terms it so obviously desires, it throws talking poop at you. Scenes like a pie-eating party that turns into a pie-throwing party are slapstick; while when Naomi is trapped in a roach motel with other bugs, themselves dying, working together to lift her out, are creepy. The tone is all over the place, and on top of that the visuals flash from blaring daylight reality to shadowy animation. Moments of drama are punctuated by the realization that you’re being compelled to sympathize with a bunch of cockroaches. At the very least, it’s a unique effort in all kinds of ways, with some imaginative technical shots, but it’s also a shoestring budget with blockbuster ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of a DVD release means you’re stuck watching VHS tapes with very phoned-in English dubbing. The choppy result is a hard film to know how to take, but one thing is certain: a bug’s life ain’t always easy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somebody please get that rolled-up newspaper and smack Japanese writer-director Hiroaki Yoshida in the head with it. COCKROACHES doesn’t even qualify as a camp classic. Besides being thoroughly deranged, it’s also slow, dull, and numbingly mediocre.”–TV Guide

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film

260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows Continue reading 260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

Recommended

他人の顔; Tanin no kao

“The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape…”–Peter Grilli, writing for the Criterion Collection

“Yield to the mask.” —The Face of Another

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mikijirô Hira, Machiko Kyô, Miki Irie

PLOT: Left with a disfigured face after an industrial accident, Okuyama spends his days in bandages while complaining to his wife. Hatching a scheme of questionable ethics with his psychiatrist-surgeon, things change for Okuyama after a cunningly designed mask is crafted to allow him, at least part of the time, to be “normal.” However, the doctor’s warnings of personality shift come true as Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife to wreak emotional revenge.

Stoll from The Face of Another (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes (also Certified Weird), The Face of Another was based on the work of novelist Kôbô Abe. While the psychiatrist appears only passingly in Abe’s book, his role was greatly expanded in the film to allow for a more tangible counterpart to Okuyama.
  • Director Hiroshi Teshigaraha stuck with the classic “academy ratio” and black and white film one last time with this movie, despite the then-current popularity of color and CinemaScope. He surrendered to modernizing pressures with his next movie, The Man Without a Map.
  • The incongruous waltz playing in the opening credits (as well as the German night-club song at the biergarten) was written by Teshigahara’s and Abe’s collaborator, composer Tôru Takemitsu, whose score was also instrumental in Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes.
  • Despite being commercially and critically well-received in its home country, The Face of Another met with a tepid audience beyond Japan’s borders. A number of critics, it seemed, had had just about enough of the intellectualist, art-house cinema that had been bombarding the movie scene for some years by then.
  • Another of Teshigahara’s art buddies — Arata Isozaki — stepped up to the plate, designing the psychiatrist’s morphing, glass-filled office. An architect by vocation, Isozaki went on to design numerous famous buildings, including the MOCA in Los Angeles and the stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though any shot with Okuyama bandaged sticks in the mind, the most jarring scene occurs when he’s fully disguised as a normal person. Having just been released into the custody of his psychiatrist after an arrest for assault, Okuyama and the doctor face a swarm of sack-clay masked citizens descending upon the streets. The doctor looks unnerved by the sight; his patient less so. Before their dramatic “goodbye”, they are utterly enveloped in a sea of faceless faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ever-mutating doctor’s office; sunbeam cooks incestuous brother; the faceless masses

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Face of Another  is essentially a Japanese New Wave art-house musing on the nature of identity. But cranking things into the realm of bizarre is a series of sets and scenes—the doctor’s uncannily undefinable office space, mirrored mirrors, and so forth—as well as strange veering between philosophical and vengeful tones. Throw in a second (and even an obliquely referenced third) story line, a German biergarten in downtown Japan, and the occasional symbolist image (among them a Doorway to Whirling Hair and spontaneous transfiguration to slaughtered livestock), and, well, you could say you’re facing something pretty weird.

Trailer for The Face of Another

COMMENTS: The meaninglessness of personal identity is a troublesome thing to ponder. The interchangeability of any given cog in society’s wheel flies in the face of notions of individuality and the Continue reading 254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE CURSE [NOROI] (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Kōji Shiraishi

FEATURING: Jin Muraki, Rio Canno, Tomono Kuga, Marika Matsumoto

PLOT: A paranormal investigator discovers a connection between a succession of mysterious phenomena.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though innovative and solidly crafted, the film remains too structurally close to a standard horror to be considered genuinely weird. Noroi stretched for—and, to a great degree, attained—innovation and uniqueness as a work of horror. But there’s little sense that it was ever aiming to be genuinely weird, at least not as this site defines the word. There’s an atmosphere of unreality brought about by the persistent otherworldly presence that wafts throughout the film, but nonetheless, the world in which it manifests is a sane and recognizable one, presented in the plain, organic style that befits the better-crafted sort of found footage film.

COMMENTS: The roots of the found footage style can be traced back as far as 1980’s infamous piece of cannibalsploitation nastiness, Cannibal Holocaust. Found footage, in its early days, represented a promising breath of fresh air for horror. After the genre had spent the last few decades building itself up on a foundation of excess, The Blair Witch Project and its imitators introduced a fresh appreciation for minimalism, implication, and the power of atmosphere in horror—as well as a new way to stretch a budget.

As was inevitable, however, the ugly side-effects of popularity began to kick in; and, as exemplified in the latter films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, the style become an overused parody of itself, completely abandoning the subtleties that gave it its appeal and intrigue for the sake of greater marketability. The “in-universe camera” aspect became little more than an excuse to underpay the cinematographer.

Fortunately for Noroi, it hopped on the found footage bandwagon before Hollywood had fully awoken to its exploitability. Or, put another way, it came out four years before Paranormal Activity, when found footage was still mildly novel.

And, though there’s far more to Noroi than its handheld camera style, this is undeniably a defining aspect of the movie. Noroi is, in short, a horror film that, though distinctly Eastern in general content, is presented in a cinematic style invented and grown almost entirely in the Western world of cinema. Put simply, it’s perhaps one of the most literal cases of J-Horror through a Westernised lens.

Noroi’s director, Kōji Shiraishi, while perhaps not enjoying ‘s levels of cult recognition in the West, has nonetheless solidly established himself as one of Japan’s more prominent 21st century horror directors. Citing both local directors and several of Hollywood’s classic horror masters (, Raimi , et. al.) among his influences, his affinity for experimentation within the genre shows clearly in the broad and diverse body of his work.

Noroi, perhaps his most recognized work in the West, is striking for its slick and effective blend of the familiar and the unexpected. In many ways, his cinematic telling of this particular tale of horror does not shy away from indulging in well-worn genre standards. The J-Horror aficionado will immediately recognize the ominous shrines and the stringy-haired ghost girl in a billowing white gown; the found-footage enthusiast will recognize the journalist protagonist whose relentless drive to document the truth serves as the reason the in-universe camera is always on; and more or less anyone with a taste for horror in any form will recognize the disquieting little girl with the less-than-enviable bonds to the world of the paranormal, or the curse that stubbornly hangs around after centuries.

And yet, in many other ways, Noroi distinguishes itself, particularly in its portrayal of its main horror.

It’s long been established that, in horror, vagueness is often the key to effective chills. From the beginning, it’s clear that Noroi understands this well. It’s not an excessively subtle film, by any stretch of the imagination—the psychic, with his hyperactive paranoia and affinity for tin foil, couldn’t be anything but comedic in any context—but in its presentation of its central threat, Noroi is strikingly effective. The film’s unfortunate protagonists are plagued by a demonic presence that makes itself known in a far more underhanded way that the petty, poltergeist-like antics of the Paranormal Activity ghost and its ilk. At the same time, however, the threat it presents is never undermined; its presence lurks throughout the film, mercilessly persistent, and all the more haunting for its vagueness.

Of course, like any horror scenario built on vagueness, the payoff needs to be meticulously crafted. Personally, I found Noroi‘s conclusion, perfectly functional as it was, to be rather mediocre in comparison with the rest of it. Still, Noroi is a solidly founded work of J-Horror, and, moreover, one of the sadly overlooked examples of the found footage style as it ought to be implemented (most of the others, incidentally, being zero-budget webseries uploaded to YouTube). It is not, however, an example of “weird” cinema to any significant degree. It’s unique, original, and evokes an excellently crafted atmosphere; but pretending that those elements are synonymous with being “weird” only cheapens the art of cinematic absurdity we’re so fond of around here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overstays its welcome with an unnecessarily complicated and increasingly absurd final act…”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lodge (festival screening)