“Only appearing in your dream. Distorting every sound to create a world like to other. This is what they live for; jumping from one person’s dream to another. Once you have been chosen, you will lose all control of your dreams.”–from the script of Funky Forest: the First Contact
DIRECTED BY: Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Isimin (AKA Aniki), Shunichiro Miki
FEATURING: Tadanobu Asa, Ryo Kase, Susumu Terashima, and a large ensemble cast
PLOT: Funky Forest is a series of absurdist skits—including both computer generated and hand drawn animation segments and musical interludes—sharing some common characters and situations, thrown together in a blender. The movie features the interwoven antics of two squabbling TV comedians, a trio of brothers who are unpopular with women, an English teacher in love with a recently graduated student who sees him as a friend only, and a school where strange bloodsucking creatures are growing, among many other threads. The comic nonsense sketches and dreams are loosely tied together by references to visitations from “alien Piko-Rico.”
- There is little hard information on this production that is available in English. Of the three credited co-directors, Katsuhito Ishii, who directed the majority of the sequences, is usually given most of the credit for assembling the collaborative project.
- Ishii composed the animated sequences for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) and had a minor arthouse hit with The Taste of Tea (2004).
- Funky Forest is the first movie directing credit for Shunichiro Miki, whose only previous movie credit was a small acting role in The Taste of Tea. Miki directs commercials in Japan. He is responsible for the “monster” segments of the film.
- Prior to Funky Forest, Hajime Isimin (who is also known as Aniki) had released one direct-to-video comedy in Japan and worked as the musical director on The Taste of Tea. He is responsible for the “Notti & Takefumi” sequences that contain the film’s major musical and dance numbers.
- Funky Forest won the “Most Innovative Film Feature” award at the 2006 Toronto After Dark film festival.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The still of the Japanese schoolgirl with a tube jammed into her navel hooked up to a strange machine encasing a large orifice while two strangely costumed men look on, from the segment titled “Wanna go for a drink?”, has already become an iconic image on the Internet. It’s the picture people post or email when they want to illustrate either 1. how weird the movie Funky Forest is, or 2. assuming the picture is from a mainstream Japanese soap opera, how weird they think the Japanese people in general are.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As the trailer indicates, Funky Forest‘s weird credentials are unimpeachable; if anything, this is a movie that’s almost too weird to be comprehensible, which is why it’s nice that it’s divided into small bites that can be digested independently. It works like a surrealist version of Altman’s Short Cuts.
Japanese language trailer for Funky Forest
COMMENTS: The opening paragraph of every review of Funky Forest is where critics get their chance to deploy their metaphorical skills in a gambit to get quoted on the cover of the next DVD release, and I’m not above this temptation. For their convenience, I’m going to bold the part that VIZ Pictures’ marketing division should consider when designing the next special edition release. Watching Funky Forest is like peeking inside the skull of an American schizophrenic stranded in Tokyo on a three day meth and mescaline binge, nodding off into dreams and blacking out in periodic epileptic fits as he flips through the local channels at 4:30 AM, all the while unaware that aliens are attempting to jam the local airwaves with subliminal propaganda designed to prepare us for an imminent encounter with advanced beings our brains are still eons away from being able to comprehend.
Having made my bid for boxcover glory, I can now tell you what I really think about Funky Forest. The fact is, that although the film’s wire-to-wire, maxed-out bizarreness makes it a must-hit title for dedicated weird-o-philes, it’s not the apex of the genre that some have proclaimed it to be. It’s far too scattered a work for that sort of an honor. Funky Forest is a series of short surreal films made by three directors and edited together into an overlong feature. If you hear that description prior to seeing Funky Forest, you’ll probably predict a film experience that’s a lot like attending a festival of experimental short features: the occasional standout image, brilliant touch, or unexpectedly moving moment surfacing from a sea of experimental noodles that are just interesting enough to keep you watching, but which wear out their welcome quickly. That is basically what you get when you venture into Funky Forest, although it has a big advantage over the short film festival marathon experience due to its consistently high technical quality.
Funky Forest is a work of pure Surrealism. With it’s steadfast refusal to make any sort of rational sense, and its use of incongruity and unexpected juxtaposition to keep us perpetually off guard, it’s in the spirit of the 1920s-1930s European Surrealist works of Buñuel and Cocteau, although updated in modern pop colors (bright, beat-heavy pop music and theme-song introductions that evoke episodic television). After cinema’s initial intoxication with the incomprehensible Surrealist form in long works like L’age d’Or and Le sang d’un poète (both 1930), feature length works of this sort have been largely absent from moviehouses for decades now. The practice of the art of pure Surrealism has fled to short films by directors struggling to be noticed, and to a small core of underground filmmakers who keep the faith despite popular and critical indifference. There are very good reasons for this trend, and Funky Forest illustrates the most important: without some sort of organizing narrative to hold our interest, the wild, bewildering cascade of unconnected images we find in a dogmatic Surrealist work can try our nerves. Pure Surrealism works better in short films where it doesn’t try our patience; even Buñuel and Cocteau abandoned Surrealist rules as they grew as artists, moving on to Neo-Surrealist works that featured stronger narratives and organizing principles while still effectively harnessing the power of the irrational. No matter how successful Funky Forest is in the end as art, it will always remain a laudable and welcome experiment in reviving and modernizing a film style too long abandoned for dead.
Takefumi, one of the recurring characters in Funky Forest, is an amateur DJ and mixmaster who likes to put vinyl records on two turntables at once and fiddle with the volume knobs, hoping to create unexpected synergies between the beats and melodies. His mashup aesthetic is as good an image of what the creative forces behind Funky Forest are aiming at as anything. Takefumi believes there is “a universe in each album” and seeks to create a “mixed-up mix” by playing them together. The three directors here mix their talents and interests to create something new and unique, but also something that’s truly “mixed-up.” Ishii focuses on creating absurd, mildly humorous situations with characters such as the Mole Brothers, the Unpopular with Women Brothers, and the Babbling Hot Springs Vixens. Isimin creates the surreal dance sequences that pepper the movie. Miki, whose work appears only in the second half, is the weirdest of them all. He created the various monsters—a mix of puppetry and CGI, with disturbingly realistic human faces overlaid over some of his creations—that are being bred in the halls of the school. These fleshy, breathing beasts call to mind the organic, animatronic abominations created by David Cronenberg for Naked Lunch and Videodrome.
Although Ishii directs most of the movie and comes into the project with the grandest resume, his segments can be the most tedious. For example, the aptly named Babbling Vixens tell a series of deliberately pointless stories about alien encounters and slanted ginkgo trees. The girls charmingly characterized by the trio of actresses as sexy professional women who are seem vapid because they’re out on a carefree lark of a holiday, but they ladies out their welcome quickly. Frustratingly, a scheduled singles picnic is planned in early scenes and set up as an event the film might build towards, but when we get there nothing happens; the buildup seems to be nothing more an unwelcome joke at the expense of the audience. Watching Ishii’s segments, there’s the constant suspicion that there must be some sort of clever untranslatable wordplay or parody of a Japanese cultural institutions going on that just isn’t coming across to the Western viewer; it’s hard to imagine that the subtle absurdities he relies on were meant to carry the entire comic load. The too-infrequent segments that he created set in a milky white outer space swimming with asteroids and amoeba-like creatures are his most memorable contributions to the project, although the elongated anime cartoon “The Transfer Student” falls flat.
The two lesser known directors fare better. Miki’s “Wanna Go for a Drink?” segment is the most successfully surreal piece of the film. Dripping with transmuted eroticism, it seems to be the schoolgirl’s naive and confused dream of sex, complete with strangely obsequious men, the desire to be gazed upon, obscure physical rituals and spurting fluids, orifices, and eventually giving birth to a bouncing baby sushi chef. It’s also quite funny, as the two men—one dressed as a yellow Muppet, the other in schoolboy shorts too sizes too small—frequently ignore the girl and interrupt their important ceremony to converse among themselves about trivialities. Miki’s other sequences don’t have quite the same punch, but his creatures (which range from lobsterlike beings with huge noses and moustaches to a bunch of doll-like men who sprout like low-hanging fruit off the legs of a woman’s torso) are always interesting to look at.
Despite the inherently frightening nature of these monstrosities, it’s important to note that the characters never fear them, even when one attaches itself to the underside of a tennis player’s arm and starts sucking the girl’s blood. The schoolchildren and staff not only accept these creatures as natural parts of their environment, but nurture them and help them grow. There’s a small tinge of fear that we bring to the experience due to the strangeness of these inventions, but the scenes give us only the slightest nudge towards body horror and never generate undue fear and revulsion. This is crucial, because darker imagery would upset the admirably light and comic tone of the rest of the film. The directors deserve credit for keeping the film surpassingly odd, but never going down the dark nightmare alleyways that most weird films feel the obligation to trod. That path, while welcome at times, has become a too well worn over the years, and its nice to see a weird film that confounds our expectation that dreamlike must necessarily equate to nightmarish.
Isimin’s dance sequences, which are like isolated music videos stuck into the picture, also supply some high points and break up the absurdist monotony. The first one, Takefumi’s beachside dream where he is forced to dance with a series of real and animated partners, has an intoxicating J-pop sensibility at first, but goes on for one too many tunes. The second number is more magical: Notti’s dream, in which she is dressed as a furry white creature playing classical violin in an empty forest. As she draws her string across the bow, the violin starts making the sound of a didgeridoo. Out of the corner of her eye she notices three nymph-like creatures, who are playing with dials embedded in mossy rocks and branches to alter the sound of her instrument. As she plays on, electronic bleeps, elephant trumpets and tribal chants chime into a rhythmic rhapsody which rises to a frenzied crescendo, until the spell is broken when a grooving spectator’s unfortunate sneeze causes the spirits to flee. The sequence is a wonderful blend of pastoral myth, modulated beats and hyperactive editing that works on its own and stands out from the rest of the film (and probably inspired the title).
Not only is that scene, the film’s penultimate sequence, a standout, but it should be pointed out that throughout the film the musical accompaniment—an eclectic and tasteful mix of cool jazz, dub, Japanese pop and electronica— is one of the film’s greatest assets, a selection of aural treats that helps to sustain our interest when the narrative fails to do so. Sadly, the soundtrack is not currently in distribution; we can only hope that as the film’s cult following grows, a release will be forthcoming.
It is both depressing and heartening to hear so many critics and fans proclaim that you’ll never see anything like Funky Forest. It’s depressing because it implies that they find Funky Forest‘s randomness to be sui generis, arising from out of nothing and nowhere. There is a whole rich history of weird film that came before Funky Forest, not only in the Surrealism of the 1930s, but also the avant-garde experiments of the 1960s and the underground films of every era, of which people seem to be ignorant. Could someone familiar with Buñuel, Cocteau or the wilder works of Fellini, not to mention Jodorowsky‘s relatively well-known The Holy Mountain, really believe that there was nothing quite like Funky Forest in existence? On the other hand, the nothing-in-the-world-like-it comment is heartening, because it indicates that Funky Forest created the impression it set out to: to create a sense of wonder in the viewer. The slowly growing Funky Forest cult suggests that there is a longing for—and more importantly, a market for—works that break the mold, that lunge forward with imagination as their only guide. We can only hope that those people who have never seen anything like Funky Forest will be filled with a yearning to see more like it, and will look backwards to encounter the great weird works of the past, while simultaneously encouraging filmmakers to give them more new films like this one. Funky Forest may be its own incomparable universe, but there are plenty more incomparable universes where that one came from.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The annals of strange just got thicker with the arrival of Funky Forest, a surreal sci-fi-musical-whatsit whose resistance to thematic or narrative logic renders viewers thoroughly — but not unpleasantly — bewildered for 2½ hours. Breathtakingly, often hilariously bizarre…”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)
“There is nothing that can prepare you for the weirdness that is ‘Naisu No Mori: The First Contact…’ Each progressive sequence seems like a contest to out-weird the previous one… a mish-mash of strewn-together ingredients that contains portions of brilliance mixed together with portions of tedium.”–Jungwhan Lah, Twitch (contemporaneous)
“Part musical, part comedy, all weird… a totally original piece of work, like traveling through someone else’s dreams at 100 m.p.h.; it’s something you won’t have experienced before and are unlikely to again.”–Paul Pritchard, DVD Verdict (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: Funky Forest: The First Contact
IMDB LINK: Naisu no mori: The First Contact (2005)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Funky Forest: The First Contact – Eiga Wiki: scant on content, but does contain the full cast and character list, as well as the complete soundtrack listing
DVD INFO: The only available releases is the VIZ Pictures 2 disc version that includes the full 150 minute film and four different trailers (some intended for Japanese TV) on the first disc. Also of note is the fact that it contains two different chapter menus: one chronological, and one that breaks down the scenes by each director (the quickest way to figure out who directed what sequence). Disc 2 contains a making of documentary, a “choreography lesson” where we see Susumu Terajima learning the complex dance moves for one of his scenes, and the storyboard to the animated sequence “The Transfer Student is Here.”
[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Charles.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]