Tag Archives: Experimental

CAPSULE: THE GRASS LABYRINTH (1979)

Kusa-meikyû

DIRECTED BY: Shuji Terayama

FEATURING: Hiroshi Mikami, Takeshi Wakamatsu, Keiko Niitaka

PLOT: A youth embarks on a quest through his unconscious to uncover a tune that his mother used to sing for him as a child.

Still from The Grass Labyrinth (1979)

COMMENTS: Shuji Terayama, emperor of Japan’s post-war avant-garde scene, made a name for himself mainly through experimental plays and films such as Death in the Country, The Fruits of Passion (starring ), and the controversial Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Grass Labyrinth is a 40 minute work that extravagantly exhibits the author’s tendencies and style while also assuming a relatively restrained approach.

The premise of an investigation into the labyrinth of memory allows for an exercise in oneiric and experimental filmmaking free from the solidity of conventional narrative. Images float in and out of the screen in a liquid stream of consciousness, like half-remembered memories (the other half filled by reconstructions, dreams and hallucinations) in a state of hypnagogia. Recurring motifs and ideas form a subliminal thread that never assumes the form of a clear and rational plot: mother figure, appearing in an Oedipal context (already suggested by the film’s premise); open fields; the ocean; and, of course, the melody of the song that our protagonist so desperately seeks, the picture’s main leitmotif.

The search for a lost childhood item (with all its psychological implications) provides the film’s central point of focus, the axis around which all the apparitions dance. The immersion in the confusing (and occasionally terrifying) sea of childhood memories summons a cast of disquieting sights and sounds, specters of all sorts that haunt the boy’s psychic depths. The mother, who at times seems to be conflated with the song itself, is the most prominent vision, but we can’t ignore the contribution of the unnamed woman who inspires contradictory attitudes of attraction and repulsion in the main character, or a troupe of demonic figures that burst into the film in a loud and ritualistic spectacle typical of Terayama’s style.

Grass Labyrinth succeeds in replicating the aura of a striking but badly remembered dream, or a trip down unconscious lane. Like other works by Terayama, it subverts the conventional trappings of cinema in order to provide an experience that couldn’t be communicated otherwise. Standing in between the author’s more experimental short-films and his (relatively) more accessible full-length outings, it works well as an introduction to the overlooked auteur.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal trip of a short film…. It doesn’t take long for Akira’s journey to fall down a rabbit hole of weirdness and the movie quite literally ends in a madhouse.”–Trevor Wells, Geeks

46*. BUBBLE BATH (1980)

Habfürdö, AKA Foam Bath

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“While it wasn’t a successful release, [Bubble Bath] now has all the qualities of a cult classic—riveting, unique, misunderstood, equal parts bizarre and brilliant, ahead of its time. It also fits into the category of surreal and psychedelic masterpieces from that era…”–Jennifer Lynde Barker, “Bubble Bath and the Animation of György Kovásznai,” in the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray release

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: György Kovásznai

FEATURING: Voices of Kornél Gelley, Vera Venczel, Katalin Dobos; Albert Antalffy, Anna Papp, Katalin Bontovits (singers)

PLOT: In a panic, Zsolt drives to Anna’s apartment, begging her to call Klári, his fiancée and Anna’s co-worker, to call off his wedding, which is scheduled for later this afternoon. Anna reluctantly agrees to help, as the two find themselves becoming attracted to one another. When Klári suddenly arrives, in the company of a drunken boxer,  to whisk Anna to the wedding, things take a turn for the screwball when Zsolt hides by dressing up as a frogman.

Still from Bubble Bath (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • György Kovásznai was primarily a painter, but he made several surreal short films beginning in the 1960s. Habfürdö was his only completed feature. He died of leukemia in 1983 at the age of 49.
  • Habfürdö was only the third animated feature ever made in Hungary, and the first one not made for children and not based on an existing literary work. It flopped in its local release but was influential among animators, and later became acknowledged as a cult film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Things move too fast to pin down a single frame, but, although they’re depicted in multiple styles, what sticks in the mind most are the character designs: Zsolt with his wavy hair and bushy, wandering mustache, and (especially) Anna, with her black bra straps and round glasses that frequently glow with freaky patterns.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Psychedelic disco apartment; frogman down the drain

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although the story—a loose romantic comedy about a man having cold feet on his wedding day—is standard issue, this animated musical is thoroughly lysergic in its visuals, with the characters and scenery constantly morphing in stroboscopic wonderment. The entire film probably needs an epilepsy warning.

Restoration trailer for Bubble Bath

COMMENTS: Despite its relatively small size, Hungary’s contribution to the world of animation is tremendous. At its height, the national Pannónia Film Stúdió was considered one of the top five studios in the world, ranking only behind the Soviets, America’s Continue reading 46*. BUBBLE BATH (1980)