At this year’s NYAFF, four classic Japanese films were re-released. Despite a growing market for international cinema, many nooks and crannies of Japanese filmmaking have remained untouched and unexplored by Western audiences. Here are our reviews of each film in chronological order of their original release date. We begin with one of the most notorious underground cult films ever made, Japanese or otherwise. Our other round-ups of this year’s festival can be found HERE.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)
There are characters, yes, and even the outlines of a plot. But Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man doesn’t operate under the strictures of narrative cinema. The film is 67 minutes of opioid agony made manifest; a cacophonous, diabolic overloading of the nervous system. Tsukamoto’s 16mm masterpiece sees one of the first true cinematic consummation of the promises of post-humanism predicted by Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. It begins with an unnamed “Metal Fetishist” slicing his leg open and shoving a steel rod deep into the wound, like a supplemental femur. All is shown in grotesque detail, from the cutting to the insertion to the near immediate festering of the wound with plump maggots. Cut to him running down a street in agony. Cut to him being hit by a car. Cut to his body being dumped in a ravine by a businessman and his girlfriend. From there we watch the businessman literally metamorphosize into a collection of scrap metal. Jagged coils of metal sprout from his face like pimples. Ferrumic rashes cake his limbs. He gets attacked by a crazed woman possessed by the Fetishist, while on the subway. He dreams of his girlfriend anally raping him with a giant prehensile hose sprouting from her crotch. He awakens to find his girlfriend making odd, machine sounds with every bite of food she takes. During a bout of sweaty lovemaking his penis warps into a massive power drill, impaling the girlfriend. But the Metal Fetishist springs back to life, literally birthing himself from her corpse. The Fetishist and businessman battle, finally congealing into a two-headed monster set on turning the whole world to rust.
I tell you the plot because it ultimately isn’t that important. What matters is the look and feel of the film: the chaotic edits, the hyperkinesis of the hand-held camera work, the preference for mood and aesthetics over coherent storytelling. Every shot feels overexposed and jittery, creating a mirage Japan as viewed through an exhausted heat stroke. Much has been made of comparisons between the film and work of David Lynch; but a more apt one would be with David Cronenberg. In their worlds, creation is synonymous with destruction, sex and violence have no distinction, and the annihilation of the organic body becomes both necessary and unavoidable for the continued evolution of mankind. Long live the new flesh. Or, more accurately, the new machine.
The next two re-releases were both by Shunji Iwai, one of Japan’s most astonishingly overlooked directors here in the West. They serve as a kind of introduction to viewers unfamiliar with his essential oeuvre.
SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLY (1996)
I don’t know Mandarin, but I lived in Japan for long enough during my junior year of college that I can tell when Japanese isn’t being spoken. This experience made Shunji Iwai’s Swallowtail Butterfly all the more mesmerizing. Set in an alternate universe where the Japanese yen has become the world’s strongest currency, immigrants from all corners of the world congregate in squalid urban communes known as “Yen Towns,” mixing their cultures, their traditions, and their languages into an unrecognizable bouillabaisse. Most of these inhabitants—spitefully referred to by the native Japanese as “Yen Towns,” a homophone in their language which translates to “Yen Thieves”—speak a bastard hybrid of Mandarin, Japanese, and English, code-switching multiple times within single sentences. It’s a perfect bit of world-building that most filmmakers aren’t bold enough to attempt. But much like with Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the film is more interested with creating a living, breathing universe with its own rules and laws. But unlike Tetsuo, it effortlessly maintains narrative cohesion, something made all the more astonishing for its sprawling 148 minute runtime. It covers a multitude of genres, letting each emerge and regress so naturally you can hardly make out where one begins and the others end.
All its plot threads and characters center on a sixteen-year-old orphan eventually given the name “Ageha,” the Japanese word for swallowtail butterfly, by a Chinese prostitute named Glico. The first hour follows their Dickensian climb from rags to riches as they navigate the horrors of the Yen Towns, finally striking it rich while living with a group of rural trash-pickers who scam wandering motorists by blowing out their tires and stealing their gasoline while fixing their cars. With the money made from one of the most ingenious counterfeiting schemes ever devised, they begin new lives as business-owners of a music club. But as Glico, played by real-life Japanese pop star Chara, rockets to superstardom, her tragic connection with one of the biggest gangsters in Tokyo threatens to ruin everyone’s lives.
Effused with mono no aware—the Japanese awareness of the impermanence of things—the film feels like a reconstruction of life itself. Characters come, linger long enough to feel like friends, and then depart. My favorite is an African-American ex-boxer who teaches Ageha how to fight before going back home with his cut of the counterfeiting spoils. Seeing him leave was so bittersweet. I wonder where he is? Did he make good back in the States? Few films make me care so deeply about characters, let alone make me wonder how their lives continued after their scenes end. Part of this comes from the film’s breezy spontaneity, a spontaneity that seems distinctly borrowed from the 70s Hollywood New Wave (there’s even a scene where the characters play a piano on the back of a truck as it drives down a highway). But it also channels the nervous enthusiasm of the French New Wave with its daring formal innovations—note the extensive use of jump cuts that would make Jean-Luc Godard blush. The look of the film, with its harsh naturalistic lighting and grotesque sets cluttered with the filth and detritus of an unforgiving society, beats the proponents of the Dogme 95 movement at their own game, creating a reality so hyperrealistic it becomes hyper-stylized. Ageha and Chara live in a terrifying, dehumanizing future. But such is the strength of Swallowtail Butterfly that I was thankful to visit it. It will not be the only time.
ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (2001)
Whereas Swallowtail Butterfly examined music as a tool to escape poverty, All About Lily Chou-Chou—the second film by Shunji Iwai showing at this year’s NYAFF—dives deeper into the symbiotic relationship between musician and listener. Disguised as a brutal and occasionally nihilistic coming-of-age story, the film examines the impact of enigmatic pop star Lily Chou-Chou on the lives of several teenagers. Jumping back and forth over the span of several years, we watch these teenagers grow up and become warped by their adolescence. The film focuses primarily on two young middle schoolers, Shūsuke Hoshino and Yūichi Hasumi. Though originally shy and reserved, Hoshino becomes cruel and wicked after almost drowning during an Okinawan vacation. He eventually comes to control the sensitive Hasumi, forcing him to become his lackey and do his dirty work. The most notable of these tasks is collecting money from a 14-year-old classmate Hoshino has blackmailed into prostituting herself to middle-aged businessmen. The three of them, along with another classmate and piano prodigy Yōko Kuno, all become inseparably linked by Chou-Chou’s music. The music will bring them together, but it will also tear them apart. Along the way to adulthood, one will be raped, one will be traumatized, two will die: one by their own hand while listening to Chou-Chou, one by the hand of another outside of a Chou-Chou concert.
Much like Swallowtail Butterfly, the film concerns itself with mood and emotional patterns. In an interview with Roger Ebert, animation legend Hayao Miyazaki spoke of instilling his films with “ma,” or “emptiness”:
“The time in between [hand-claps] is ‘ma.’ If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”
Large swaths of All About Lily Chou-Chou seem composed of nothing but ‘ma,’ the most significant being the aforementioned trip to Okinawa. A lengthy segment made up of vacation footage captured by Hoshino, Hasumi, and their friends; they dawdle about, swim on beaches, and flirt with the locals. Much happens, including a friendship with an ill-fated nature enthusiast who tags along with their group, but little of it has to do with the overarching plot of the film—at least until Hoshino’s life-altering near-death experience. It’s here so we can slowly see the development of Hoshino and Hasumi’s friendship, so we can acclimate ourselves to the time and space of early 2000s Japan.
There’s also a dawning awareness of the full implications of the arrival of the information age. The film was originally based on a serialized internet novel written by Iwai, posted on a website where he wrote messages written from the point of view of characters from the novel. Iwai encouraged readers to post their own messages and interact with his “characters.” Then, in a move that would predict the rise of online hypertext narratives, like Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck, he incorporated these interactions into the actual text of the novel’s later chapters. In a sense, then, All About Lily Chou-Chou can claim to be one of the first films to truly explore the relationship between the internet, fan culture, and art. Certainly it has remained one of the best.
This isn’t to say that it’s an easy film to watch. All About Lily Chou-Chou is a devastating, emotionally draining sit. Iwai is a master of depicting cruelty. We are treated to several scenes of bullying involving rape and sexual humiliation. For many, these scenes will prove too much.
I, like many of my generation, first came to Asian cinema and media through anime movies and television shows. So I made a point of tracking down and viewing the 10th anniversary showing of Michael Arias’ Tekkonkinkreet (2006). Based on the popular 90s manga series, it was notable for being the first major anime film by a non-Japanese director. It utilizes a somewhat atypical art style for anime, eschewing both the exhaustively detailed and lifelike worlds of sci-fi franchises like Ghost in the Shell and Gundam as well as the highly simplified, highly exaggerated designs of chibi and moe. Instead it juxtaposes crisp, meticulously rendered backgrounds with very rudimentary, seemingly unfinished character models. These humans seem like an artist’s first draft, lacking almost all shading and hatching. The style takes some getting used to, but it fits the film’s breathless scenes of kinetic abandon.
The main storyline is highly allegorical: two street orphans named Black and White live in a pan-Asian city known as Treasure Town, where they fight against yakuza gangsters who want to take over. Black is headstrong and violent, White is childlike, absent-minded, and so distracted it borders on clinical retardation. They complete each other, each of them sliding into extreme depressions or psychotic episodes if separated for too long. If you still haven’t figured out the obvious yin and yang metaphor, there’s a handy Taijitu on the back of Black’s shirt to help fill you in. What’s strange is that the film only follows their highly metaphorical story about 2/3rds of the time. The rest is devoted to exploring the inner lives and political maneuverings of the yakuza they are fighting against. But whereas their story is fantasy—children parkour up skyscrapers with just a few jumps, Black and White are hunted by a trio of seemingly unkillable yakuza assassins who can fly, people whisper of a Minotaur prowling the streets—the yakuza exist in a highly realistic world.
The two don’t fit together, a fact made all the more frustrating by the almost complete abandonment of the yakuza characters and subplots in the last 30 minutes. Ultimately they proved inconsequential beyond being obstacles for Black and White to overcome. So why do we follow them? Why should we care about their personal lives, their hopes and dreams, their losses and tragedies? There’s one scene where a gangster is forced to execute his mentor in an alleyway. It’s a sweeping, heartbreaking moment that the film lingers on. Yet, in hindsight, it served no real purpose to the narrative. It contributes to the character development of a character who didn’t need any. And that really does seem to sum up Tekkonkinkreet: while gorgeous, creative, brash, and unique, there’s too little method behind the madness.