Tag Archives: Japanese

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

Tenshi no Tamago

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda

PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.

Still from Angel's Egg (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.

To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.

Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.

Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).

Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.

One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.

Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: SYMBOL (2009)

Shinboru

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli

PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.

Still from Symbol (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.

The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.

Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.

There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.

A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like , Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.

I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CUTIE HONEY (2004)

AKA Cutie Honey: Live Action

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eriko Satô, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Murakami, Eisuke Sakai; voices of Carrie Keranen, Eva Kaminsky, Vinnie Penna, Madeleine Blaustein (English dub)

PLOT: A naive, upbeat female superhero battles the alien organization “Panther Claw” after they abduct her professor uncle, while simultaneously trying to keep her temp job and find a true friend.

Still from Cutie Honey (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It is weird, in that Japanese pop way, but it’s also extremely lightweight, and we have to draw the line somewhere.

COMMENTS: “She’s that trendy girl/The one with the teeny butt… She’s that popular girl, the one with the bouncy boobs.” So goes Cutie Honey‘s theme song, which omits any reference to her crimefighting abilities. Our first view of Honey is of her soapy legs and feet in the bubble bath. She gets a phone call in the tub, learns her uncle is abducted, and has to rush to the scene of the crime—only she has no clothes available, so she runs through the street in her underwear, partially covered by a trash bag that doesn’t conceal much. Her regular crimefighting costume features skintight black pants and a heart-shaped cutout for her cleavage; during her off hours she favors midriff-baring mini-skirts and stiletto heels. Somehow, the camera always finds that the upskirt angle best captures the energy of the fight sequences. But, even though Cutie’s body is relentlessly sexualized—virtually fetishized—the story never compromises the innocence of her character. Cutie herself has no sexuality; she seeks only harmless friendship, and any impure thoughts others might have about her stem strictly from their own corruption. (The bosses clearly get an erotic charge out of battling her, especially Cobalt Claw, the vampire dominatrix Honey defeats with a searing embrace). Japanese movies have a way of pulling off this innocent fanservice without making it seem too skeevy, and director Hideaki Anno’s background in anime clearly served him well in the endeavor.

Former swimsuit model Eriko Satô’s considerable physical appeal aside—and to be fair, she does do a nice job rounding out her character between all the cheesecake shots, locating Honey’s legitimate grrl power—Cutie Honey is a wild, electric affair, one of the best live-action translations of anime style. Anno even splices in some brief, stylized animation at times, such as when Honey dodges Gold Claw’s missiles in the sky or hurls Scarlet Calw’s energy beam back at the villainous supergeisha. Of course, reality is a distant cousin to the characters of this world, and they’re not really on speaking terms. Panther Claw’s human henchmen dress in snazzy black Zorro-inspired uniforms, carry golden guns, and generally act like disposable buffoons from Adam West’s “Batman.”  The big baddie—Sister Jill—is some sort of tree goddess who eats virgins, and her tuxedo-clad butler wears eyeliner and a very fake mustache. There’s also a giant holographic uncle. And what would a weird Asian movie be without out-of-place musical numbers, including some drunken karaoke from the three principals, plus a quartet of henchmen playing violins as Black Claw croons a jazzy mid-tempo challenge (your toe will tap as he sings “for the sake of my own happiness, please wither away beautifully, baby.”) Cutie Honey is like an extended sugar-rush episode of “Power Rangers,” if the solo Ranger was played by a teenage pop star who dresses like a hooker.

The “Cutie Honey” franchise began life as an ecchi manga, then became a more innocent animated children’s TV series in the 1970s, followed by various video and television revivals of varying degrees of naughtiness. This feature version was followed by a live-action TV series, with a new live-action feature film scheduled for release in October 2016. Hideaki Anno, of course, is best known around here for directing two separate “Evangelion” anime series; we’re still awaiting the final installment of the second series, which seems to have stalled since Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo rolled out in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…those who like their films with a distinctly Western sensibility should be warned – Cutie Honey is loaded with trademark Japanese kookiness, and is at times just plain weird.”–Craig Villinger, “Digital Retribution” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose comment was lost in a server crash years ago. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually Continue reading 239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister discussing the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

CAPSULE: AIR DOLL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Hirokazu Koreeda

FEATURING: Doona Bae, Arata Iura, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji

PLOT: Nozomi, an inflatable sex doll, develops consciousness and comes to life, wandering through the streets while her owner is at work, encountering various lonely souls including a video store attendant, with whom she falls in love.

Still from Air Doll (2009)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The central conceit (and character) of the inflatable sex doll is the only weird element in this film. The people surrounding Nozomi and the contemporary Japanese setting are grounded in naturalism, positioning the film in the genre of magical realism rather than surrealism.

COMMENTS: The concept of an outsider or alien force experiencing human existence is a familiar trope in cinema. Ex Machina (2015), Her (2013), A.I. (2001), City of Angels (1998) and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) all explore similar concepts. In the main, these films present a robot or artificial intelligence evolving human characteristics, whereas Air Doll posits a less likely protagonist: an inflatable vinyl sex doll.

Nozomi, a “sexual surrogate” as she lamentably reminds us through the film, lives with her owner, Hideo, in modern urban Tokyo. She passively listens to his self-important ramblings about work (which we later learn are lies), and then later serves as an equally passive recipient to his sexual advances. The following morning, after Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi inexplicably comes to life (Nozomi describes the process as “finding a heart”) in a sequence where an animated puppet becomes actress Doona Bae, enjoying the sensual thrill of dripping water running over her hand. Her first thoughts on her newfound consciousness are “beau-ti-ful!,” but this will change by the film’s end.

Nozomi is a curiosity to those she encounters, but their reactions are no match for her own wonder at everything she sees. Even the garbage men fascinate her. Nozomi’s wonder and simple satisfaction with life remains a stark contrast to the thwarted happiness of the human characters throughout the film

Nozomi’s position as outsider is reinforced both by her status as an animated doll and the casting of Korean actress Bae in a Japanese film. This is purposeful casting by director Koreeda to throw his observations of modern urban life into sharper relief. Like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satire or analysis of a culture is strengthened the more alien the presence of the other observing it. Bae, the alien in question, seems incapable of delivering a poor performance; even if the film is weak (witness the failed splendor of Cloud Atlas) she is always in top form and her portrayal here is no exception. Nozomi is by turns curious, ebullient, playful, saddened, sensual and emphatic. Her small, staccato, childlike walk in her French Maid’s dress is also a lovely touch, emphasizing Nozomi’s innocence and vulnerability.

Despite the potential here for an incisive and engaging investigation of modern Japanese life—and by extension human existence—the overall tone remains light and humorous , although the film does take a much darker turn in its final act. Even the bleaker aspects of the human characters’ lives fail to inspire sympathy because they are so underdeveloped (many of them we only see once or twice in small cutaways). You could argue the conceit of a sex doll coming to life is farcical and thus the comic tone is appropriate, but elsewhere Koreeda teases us with more involved drama (for example, Nozomi’s boss blackmailing her for sex) without ever really committing to it.

That the film is a slight work that sadly never lingers in the memory is evidenced by the lack of interviews and production materials surrounding it online. Even the links on its Wikipedia page are dead and its archived page on the Cannes Film Festival comes up with an “error.” This is not to say that the film doesn’t have very beautiful and tender moments: for example the gentle touch the old man asks Nozomi to place on his forehead, or Nozomi opening up a tear on her arm in order to smell the breath of her lover; its simply that there is nothing significant about the human experience mined in any great depth. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) (1952) is a much more palpable and urgent examination of what it means to be human and why life is so precious. (I mention it only because the initial pleasure in life Nozomi experiences is similar to the renewed urgency found by Ikiru’s protagonist).

As a rumination on urban loneliness and inertia, defeated dreams and the loss of innocence transitioning to adulthood, this film is arguably successful; however in addressing the larger questions of what it means to human it falls flat, suffering from a lack of focus and peripheral characters in need of further development.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it’s set in a cold and seemingly hollow world.”–Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice Magazine

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express

DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii

FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto

PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.

Still from Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.

COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.

Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer to than anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.

The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.

While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

CAPSULE: RAMPO NOIR (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissôji, Hisayasu Satô, Atsushi Kaneko

FEATURING:

PLOT: Four experimental stories of sex and madness adapted from the works of Edogawa Rampo: a man regrets a rape, a killer strikes through mirrors, a wife cares for a husband who is a human torso, and a limo driver is obsessed with a stage actress.

Still from Rampo Noir (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ll dismiss it for uneveness, although even the best segments probably would not merit inclusion in a list of the greatest weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Rampo Noir is more of a series of visual and stylistic calling cards than it is a tribute to the literary talents of Edogawa Rampo (Tarō Hirai, “the Japanese Edgar Allen Poe,” who selected his pseudonym to pay tribute to the American horror/mystery writer). The narratives here are either nonexistent (“Mars’s Canal,” the impressionistic Rampo-inspired first course), slight (“Caterpillar” and “Crawling Bugs”), or founded on dated pseudoscience (“Mirrored Hell”). Of course, one would not sense what made Poe great by watching ‘s Tales of Terror; the four directors here aim at capturing Rampo’s perverse atmosphere (with greater explicitness) rather than showing accuracy to his texts. The results, as might be expected, are all over the map (sometimes within the same segment).

The first film (“Mars’s Canal”) begins with a warning advising your that your disc is not defective. Entirely silent, with deliberately glitchy video, it’s an indulgence by heretofore (and hence) unknown director Suguru Takeuchi. It’s built around one magnificent shot (filmed in Iceland), but even at six minutes long it tries the patience of the average viewer.

In contrast, Akio Jissôji’s “Mirror Hell” is a (relatively) conventional murder mystery, probably the most accessible segment of the omnibus. There is a (somewhat) rational explanation to the mystery of beautiful tea-ceremony teachers who turn up dead, although it does depend on strained early-twentieth century science fiction-style explanations (undiscovered elements with properties that mimic magic, that sort of thing). It also features a Rampo-esque theme that dreams are reality, and that what we think of as life is but a reflection in a mirror, “neither real nor unreal.” It as, as might be expected, filled with multiple mirrors in almost every shot (there’s an interesting composition of mirrors on a beach, each reflecting a different landscape, that evokes a vintage Continental Surrealist painting).

Hisayasu Satô savors the sickness inherent in “Caterpillar.” The story involves the unhealthy relationship between a resentful wife and her war hero husband, now a mute quadruple-amputee, whom she must care for. Satô takes Rampo’s original anti-war parable (which was adapted more accurately in ‘s feature length film) and focuses almost entirely on the salacious sadomasochistic aspects of the story. Like all of the entries, “Caterpillar” is visually superior, but this one lacks a meaningful reason to exist: Satô’s treatment bludgeons the original’s subtleties, and due to a lack of substance in the main tale he introduces an unnecessary character (a nosy collector  who considers the caterpillar a work of art) and shoehorns in a ridiculous appearance by Rampo detective Kogorô Akechi (Asano, reprising his role from “Mirror Hell”). “Caterpillar” may impress some with its perversity, but it doesn’t so as much with the premise it was handed as it should have.

Although this rarely happens in anthologies, in Rampo Noir the best is saved for last. In an inversion of the dynamic we saw with “Caterpillar,” Atsushi Kaneko’s “Crawling Bugs” takes a well-worn idea (the shy, unhinged man obsessed with an unobtainable iconic beauty) and uses style and psychological details to make it feel fresh. There are many odd touches here, from the actress’ bizarre pyramidal hairstyle to alternating inserts of a nebula and an amoeba. While our timid limo-driver suffers from an itchy psychosomatic condition that causes him to feel like he has bugs crawling over his skin, his obsession plays a strange sexual game involving a leech-like bug that crawls over her neck. The glowing forest glade he constructs as an altar to his lady inside of his shabby apartment is a rainbow fantasy refuge that makes us feel as disconnected from reality as he is. “Bugs” is the only segment here that feels like it could stand on its own, and singlehandedly raises the quality of the anthology from “take it or leave it” to “worth watching.”

Tadanobu Asano appears in every episode and is clearly the main domestic draw. Of the directors, only Hisayasu Satô is somewhat known in the West, for exploitative sadomasochistic pink movies like Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture (AKA The Bedroom) and Splatter: Naked Blood. Akio Jissôji has made numerous movies not widely seen outside of Japan, but Suguru Takeuchi and Atsushi Kaneko have done nothing of note before or since this.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Rampo Noir’s hallucinogenic approach to narrative and visuals is nothing short of invigorating.”–Jasper Sharp, Midnight Eye (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who said she was “amused, intrigued and sickened; sometimes simultaneously” by the experience. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

224. JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE (1967)

Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu

“I think that our only route to freedom and our only route to pleasure can come after we have first recognized that freedom and pleasure are not possible in this world.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Nagisa Ôshima

FEATURING: Keiko Sakurai, Kei Satô, Masakazu Tamura, Taiji Tonoyama

PLOT: An oversexed eighteen-year old girl wanders a city looking for a man to sleep with her—any man. She takes up with a strange, reserved older army deserter, but fails to convince him to service her, as he has a death wish and is only interested meeting someone who will kill him. The two are abducted and taken to a compound where outlaws are being recruited to fight in a secret underground war; meanwhile, television reports tell of a foreign sniper killing civilians on the streets, driving all of Japan to hide in their homes.

Still from Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • Disappointed by the timidity of the Japanese studio system and the political controversy surrounding his 1960 movie Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Ôshima formed his own production company in 1965. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide was one of the baker’s dozen of self-produced films he directed between 1965 and 1972, and the first one to indulge in wall-to-wall surrealism.
  • Stars Keiko Sakurai and Kei Satô also appeared in Nagisa Ôshima’s next film, Death by Hanging, which was Sakurai’s only other acting credit.
  • Ôshima would go on to cult success in the West with his sexually explicit provocation In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) starring .
  • This feature should not be confused with Masahiro Shinoda‘s 1969 arthouse hit Double Suicide, a fourth-wall breaking adaptation of an 18th century Japanese play about doomed lovers. Although entirely unrelated, Shinoda‘s film is worth seeing in its own right.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In what just might be a bit of symbolic foreshadowing, the two main characters lie down on top chalk outlines around which, moments ago, reverent monks had been circling and chanting. (Curiously, the outlines are sketched on a what should be a busy four-lane highway, yet there is no traffic).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Virgin nympho; deserted highways; “a Japanese Dallas”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Starring a nympho who can’t get laid and a suicidal man who can’t get killed, Ôshima’s surrealistic Sixties satire carves out a unique space somewhere between a ian joke and an extended zen koan.


Original trailer for Japanese Summer: Double Suicide

COMMENTS: When our on-the-make nymphomaniac meets the Continue reading 224. JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE (1967)