PLOT: Nine people are vacationing at a Japanese hot springs resort; some of them have disappeared for three days and reappeared without explanation. In an alternate universe, these nine pursue an existence in a village inside magical forest of sexualized fruit, miniature people, and brothels stocked with nipple-sucking creatures. The alter-egos supplicate before a monolith in the forest, seeking for a way to warp their dreams and find a happier existence.
Although Miki has a segment in another anthology film and some TV episodes to his credit, this is his sole solo feature. He mostly directs commercials; he saved the money he made over the years and spent his entire life savings to fund this film himself.
The Warped Forest only had a short festival run and was never released to cinemas in Japan or elsewhere. In 2022 it was released as the co-feature in the Funky Forest Blu-ray set.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cute-as-a-button Fumi Nikaidô holding an ornately carved rifle, which charges up with an advancing series of lights and a crescendo of whirs when she grasps it and, when fully operational, flips the compartment in the barrel to reveal… a tiny wiener, which emits a thin stream of white fluid.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hypertech jizz gun; genital fruit
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Shunichiro Miki melds the weirdly organic and the comically absurd into a singular pocket of dreamspace, presenting a completely personal and unduplicatable vision that is simultaneously shocking, angularly erotic, and heartwarming.
PLOT: A story about a friendship between two schoolgirls, Taki and Aki, and their shared dream of a one-eyed monster serves as a framing device for a series of songs by the Japanese pop singer Eve.
COMMENTS: It begins with two schoolgirls discussing dreams in a diner. (Where would David Lynch take that premise?) Taki relates a dream of a one-eyed monster, then leaves to get the girls a refill on their tea. Suddenly, Aki realizes she’s had the exact same dream.(Later, she will overhear people on a public bus describing an identical nocturnal vision.) Aki looks up and the diner is deserted; Taki is gone. Aki’s voiceover tells us she never heard from Taki again. A peppy guitar riff begins playing, Aki pines for Taki, and eventually a music video commandeers the screen.
And so it will go: little bits of story alternating with longer stretches of music by Eve. Eve is a camera-shy presence, commonly shot from behind so that we see only his shaggy blond mane, or seen in silhouette, or with his face hidden deep inside a shadowy hood, or with a bullhorn posed before his face as he shouts a particularly enthusiastic verse. The creativity required to constantly find new ways to shroud his identity is impressive. Musically, I suppose he’s competent; his tongue is fluid and precise as he drops cascades of syllables, with every song delivered in the same uptempo style, half-rapped, half-sung. Eve’s voice is pleasant but nothing special, although as a 53-year old American male who favors avant-garde jazz, I’m about as far away from his target demographic of teenage Japanese girls as possible. Despite the bubblegum sound, Eve’s lyrics tend towards the melancholic—not to mention the vague. (“It hurts, this restless center of a flower.”)
Those who aren’t fans in particular of Eve’s music will be tuning in for the animation, which doesn’t disappoint. First, a flock of animated white doves fly before the hooded singer. Then, brief inserts of anime characters pop in, happily hopping along to the beat. With each new song these characters and abstract whirligigs share more of the screen with the singer, overlaid on live concert footage, taking up more and more of the stage, swirling in patterns that obscure Eve almost entirely. The eye symbol, in various forms (e.g. briefly blinking into and out of existence on a skyscraper), begins to dominate the imagery, until we finally arrive at the film’s 6-minute all-animated centerpiece. A city of schoolgirls and schoolboys, equipped with happy-faced masks that flop in front of their real faces, share a city with tall, identical cyclopes: conformist youth flanked by fascist elders. But, using combat skills they learned from first person shooters, the kids revolt and slaughter their monster overlords, in a carnival of carnage recalling Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 scored to a techno beat. More music videos in the accustomed style wind down the action, and as a bonus, a second full-length animated short plays over the closing credits.
The title suggests the story of Adam and Eve, but aside from a few stray apples seen lying about, you won’t find much in that line of inquiry. Clearly, it’s Eve’s poppy music and the psychedelic anime routines that are the draw here. But the thin narrative does at least suggest themes of teen love, teen alienation, teen sexuality, and teen suicide, with a sly queer slant. Good stuff for the young, but even us crusty Gen-Xers could screen a lot worse entertainment in an hour.
Adam by Eve: A Live in Animation currently streams exclusively on Netflix.
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Hatsujô kateikyôshi: Sensei no aijiru
DIRECTED BY: Mitsuru Meike
FEATURING: Emi Kuroda
PLOT: A call girl survives a shot in the head and acquires the cloned finger of George Bush.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Add George W. Bush saying “G-spot” in a Japanese accent to the list of things you never expected to see (or hear) in a movie. The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai might not be the most polished or profound flick out there, but left-field surprises like that are the reason we watch weird movies.
COMMENTS: Sex films sometimes give low budget directors the chance to innovate and experiment. So long as you deliver the anticipated dose of T&A every ten minutes, the thinking goes, you can fill up the interstices with whatever nonsense or profundity you like. Some frustrated auteurs have taken this opportunity to mix ambitious absurdism with sex: Abel Ferrarastarted in hardcore, Russ Meyer decided to make an entire oddball career in sexploitation, and Stephen Sayadian mixed pornography with honest-to-God surrealism. TheGlamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai stands firmly in this tradition, but with a typically Japanese panache.
The opening scene is a 6-minute soft sex scene with call girl Sachiko seducing a client while posing as his tutor. The clip is made for straight wanking, betraying no hint of the avant-garde pretensions to come. Afterwards, during a confrontation at a cafe between two secret agents, Sachiko is shot but inexplicably survives a bullet to the head, while her lipstick is accidentally switched with a container holding the finger of a clone of President George W. Bush. The accident leaves her with super-intelligence and psychic powers, and she soon seduces a famous professor who like to discuss Noam Chomsky while boning. He hires her as a tutor to his underachieving adult son who’s only interested in military history. Meanwhile, a North Korean spy is searching for Sakicho. Eventually, in the film’s strangest scene, the finger reveals its true nature, as a man in a paper George Bush mask delivers a deranged villain speech from a TV monitor (occasionally interrupted by footage of Iraqis pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue) while Sachiko, penetrated by the detached digit, writhes on the ground in involuntary ecstasy. That plot is bizarre enough, but there are plenty of surreal embellishments along the way: a crude cartoon, psychedelic green screen compositions, peeks into the activity inside the hole in Sakicho’s head, and one brief scene acted out by G.I. Joe action figures.
Unfortunately, even if you’re up for the softcore interlude every ten minutes, all of this intriguing absurdity comes with a big downside: rape. Most reviews imply that there is one rape scene—and the one they are focusing on is icky and especially gratuitous—but there are technically more that that. There’s one where Sachicko is nearly comatose and unable to give consent, one that begins as an assault when a girl tries to break up with her paramour (but appears consensual thereafter), and of course the infamous “finger” scene (which, to be fair, is so absurdly conceived that it’s hardly disturbing). Even if you don’t find these bits nauseating, they’re completely at odds with the lighthearted, comic tone of the rest of the film. Lead Emi Kuroda is so and bodacious and spunky that, properly directed, Sachiko could have been a sex-positive goddess. The movie misses a great opportunity to be a vehicle promoting positive erotic energy as an antidote to the militaristic Thanatos drive, which would have been an absolutely winning formula. As it is, no one is going to fault you if you can’t get over the movie’s implicit and explicit misogyny; it’s a glaring flaw, and quite possibly a fatal one. On the other hand, even though the attempted political satire isn’t particularly trenchant, consisting as it does of a not-so-bold anti-nuclear annihilation stance, there’s something wholesome about plopping a prominent world leader into the middle of a smutty picture.
As a pink film, Sakicho Hanai originally ran just over an hour and was titled Horny Home Tutor: Teacher’s Love Juice (!) Director Mitsuru Meike expanded it by about 25 minutes and sold it to film festivals as a cult movie. The Japanese trailer shows Meike pitching the film to a politician, hoping to get a quote for the poster. He tells the functionary who answers the phone that he’s only been able to make soft porn movies so far and that Sachiko Hanai “may be the last chance for me.” The DVD includes that trailer, the US release trailer, the Horny Home Teacher cut of the film, and a short film sequel (“The Adventure of Sakicho Hanai”) that is, if anything, more offensive than the feature, with no nudity but featuring puppet rape and Sakicho wrestling a woman in blackface.
PLOT: Rinko is a shy and inhibited woman working as a counselor at a suicide hotline. One day, a photographer she previously helped sends her compromising photos of herself. The stalking turns into blackmail when he forces her to live out her erotic fantasies, which take on an increasingly hallucinatory character.
A Snake of June debuted at the 59th Venice International Film Festival (2002), where it won a special award (the Kinematrix Film Award, which does not appear to have been awarded before or since).
Tsukamoto and main actress Asuka Kurosawa were respectively awarded the Special Jury Award and Best Actress Award at 2003’s edition of Fantasporto (Porto International Film Festival).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The unusual garb of the erotic cabaret’s patrons, who sport funnel masks as they watch an equally offbeat performance.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Erotic drowning performance; corrugated pipe assault
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although modest by the director’s standards, A Snake of June stands out by all other measures of weirdness through its gradual abandonment of conventional narrative logic to indulge in surreal displays of interlacing horror, desire and sadism.
PLOT: Detectives investigate an organ harvesting operation.
COMMENTS: As a collaborator of Shinya Tsukamoto—she was in his earliest films, and served as costume designer, cinematographer and female lead in Tetsuo: The Iron Man—Kei Fujuwara boasted a promising résumé. Unfortunately, her two features as director, of which Organ was the first, have proved disappointing—though undoubtedly weird. Although many elements of the Tetsuo aesthetic carry over into her solo work, thematic consistency and narrative drive are not among them. Organ is, instead, a confusing attempt at shock-art cinema that fails to engage many viewers.
Although pitched as a straightforward B-movie/horror narrative, Organ‘s story is related confusingly, with lots of ellipses, flashbacks, scenes and players who are poorly established or cut off prematurely, dreams and hallucinations, and too much time spent on the antics of ancillary characters who add nothing (a toilet-cleaning sequence). Painfully close attention will reveal that the story involves two detectives investigating an organ harvesting cult. One of the cops, Tosaka, is caught by the gang and kept around as a kind of talking houseplant after his limbs are amputated. The other cop, Numata, is taken off the case, but hangs around maintaining a semi-cordial relationship with the kidnappers. Tosaka’s identical twin also starts searching for the newly-minted amputee. Meanwhile, one of the gang freelances as a serial killer preying on schoolgirls. Director Fujiwara herself plays Yoko, the one-eyed enforcer of the harvesting gang, and she’s pissed about the extracurricular killings and sadistically disciplines the culprit (who’s also her brother). A flashback shows how his mom attempted to castrate him (incidentally poking out Yoko’s eye), providing his serial killer motivation. And there are another couple of characters running around who are not properly introduced or explained. It all somehow leads to a drawn out bloodbath with a bunch of characters you don’t care about and can’t easily distinguish fighting each other for reasons you’re not entirely clear about.
Not only is the script a mess, the movie is visually ugly—not at all what you’d expect from Tetsuo‘s cinematographer. Much of the action occurs in deep shadows so that you can’t follow who’s mutilating whom. When it’s not too dark to see what’s going on, it’s garishly overlit, showcasing its dilapidated, bleak alleyway and warehouse sets. The film is full of gruesome, but dull, autopsy-style gore. One character has ridiculous fluorescent green oatmeal caked on him, meant to represent putrefaction. (This effect probably would have looked impressive were the film shot in black and white.)
Then, somewhere in the middle of the movie, Fujiwara stages a lovely opium-fantasy scene in which a schoolgirl claws her way out of a (vaginally-designed) cocoon, only to complain of caterpillars in her belly. This single scene can hardly redeem the entire film, but it does prove Fujiwara has a vivid and sometimes effective imagination, even if her best ideas get buried under muddled execution. Also, this one scene is probably just barely enough to save this ordeal from a “Beware” rating (though potential watchers may want to take into account how close it comes to earning that dreaded designation).
I believe that Fujiwara intended to tell a story here, but an overstuffed script combined with poor editing choices scuttled the enterprise. But I could be wrong; it’s possible the confusion is an intentional strategy. Either way, it’s not much fun. Organ could be pitched as a Japanese take on a Herschell Gordon Lewis film with a bit of script doctoring by David Lynch—but the end result is nowhere as interesting as that description implies.
Fujiwara’s second feature, Id (2005), is essentially a sequel to Organ, set in the same universe, but in the future. A featurette included on the out-of-print Synapse DVD describes Fujiwara’s play “Organ 2” or “Organ Vital,” which has basically the same plot as what would become Id nine years later, and includes what appears to be early footage shot for the film. Sets and settings (the plastic-sheeting draped laboratory, the ghetto-like industrial housing complex with its overgrown alleyways) are reused in Id.
PLOT: An impressionable young girl is sent home from the orphanage to live with her parents, where she has to deal with a dazed mother, a hateful maid, a secret mutant sister, and a silver-haired witch intent on killing her.
COMMENTS: How would you feel if you were a child who had grown up an orphan, living a happy life in an idyllic children’s home, only to suddenly leave everything you’ve ever known to live with two strangers who happen to be your real parents? It would probably be difficult, right? Now imagine that on your first night home, your biologist father goes off to Africa, leaving you home alone with your disturbed mother, a stern housekeeper and… a secret older sister with a disfigured face who lives in the attic and happens to be half snake?
Yeah, most children would probably wish they had stayed at the orphanage. But wide-eyed young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is too innocent to leave her new parents, despite the countless horrors that she suffers at the hands of her older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi). First, it’s just a snake in the bed, but the madness soon escalates with a horrific dream where Sayuri’s beloved doll turns into a miniature human and is mauled by Tamami, who transforms into a grotesque reptilian creature when she attacks her prey.
Even after Sayuri has a toad torn in half and thrown in her face, wakes up to a swarm of spiders in her bed, and is threatened with a flesh-dissolving acid bath, she still remains resolute in her decision to stay with her oblivious mother, who overlooks all of these offenses as unavoidable concessions that must be made to the pitiable Tamami.
But wait… We haven’t even touched on the second part of the title yet! Sayuri is willing to put up with her snaky sister’s shenanigans, but she draws the line at the silver-haired witch who emerges from the shadows of her attic bedroom. She barely escapes the house with her life and returns to the orphanage to seek help, but her sister and the witch aren’t about to let her get away that easily.
Part of a recent slew of obscure Japanese horror films released on the Arrow label, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a hidden gem that offers more in the way of garish shocks and traditional horror imagery than more renowned art-house horror classics such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (long available from the Criterion Collection). Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, otherwise known primarily for the Gamera series of sub-Godzilla monster movies, there is nothing dull or formulaic about Snake Girl. It packs a lot of bizarre moments and unexpected plot developments into its brief 82 minute running time, while creating an original mythology of its own, which never relies on the usual horror tropes.
Another secret to this film’s success is the use of a child’s perspective. Horror films seen through the eyes of children are almost always more successful than those where adults are the main characters, although the latter variety is more common. And even though the special effects here are thoroughly low-budget and ridiculous (the titular “snake girl” is represented in dream sequences by a slit-mouthed puppet straight out of Sesame Street), the fact that everything is seen through the eyes of the unsuspecting Sayuri makes it forgivable.
Despite the apparent lack of budget, Yuasa creates a creepy mood that will be irresistible to any horror movie fan. When a film begins with slurping sounds, theremin, and a snake strangulation which is swiftly diagnosed as a “heart attack,” you know you’re in for some good schlock. The visuals are full of swirls and scaly imagery that drives home the idea that Sayuri is living in a house of snakes. There’s always something weird happening to sustain the mood, with none of the romantic side plots or dramatic filler often present in horror films of the era. It might not be high art, but if you’re looking for some classic Japanese horror that delivers the goods without taking itself too seriously, Snake Girl will give you all you’re looking for, and then some.
The Arrow Video release features a stunning new HD restoration that is worth the money. The Blu-ray also features a commentary by film historian David Kalat and an interview which gives some background info on the film and the work of Kazuo Umezu, who wrote the manga on which the film was based (and also has a brief cameo as a taxi driver in the film). Arrow is certainly doing the good work in rescuing these Japanese classics from obscurity.
PLOT: Two women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.
COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.
The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.
Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings. You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.
Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.
Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.