Action / Thrillers, Drama, Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

A Snake Of June

Mixing eroticism with a genuine empathy for it’s cast, one of Shinya Tsukamoto’s most complex and rewarding films…

Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cyber-punk classic, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, is often compared to David Cronenberg. Both directors started their careers with low budget body horror and as their filmographies grew longer their films moved from portraying literal, physical transformation into psychological and metaphorical transformation. Post The Fly (1986) Cronenberg directed Dead Ringers (1988), a clear move away from physical body horror and a confident step into more psychological horror. For me, A Snake Of June is Tsukamoto’s Dead Ringers.

Don’t expect any suggestion of compromise from Japan’s most fiercely independent filmmaker though. Hell no. All of the intensity and nightmarish imagery associated with his earlier films prevail, as do recurring themes of repression, pain and transformation. A Snake Of June’s protagonists get shoved roughly through an emotional meat grinder too. At it’s heart A Snake Of June is a ‘threatening stranger’ movie, where, through the appearance of a threatening stranger, the main characters are forced to take a good long hard look at themselves, for better or worse.

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa; Cold Fish, Memories Of Matsuko) works as a phone counsellor, a kind of paid Samaritan. She’s polite, well mannered and caring. She, listens, she gives people advice and sometimes she tells people what they need to do. She’s also a little sexually repressed. At home she fantasises about wearing a very short skirt and masturbates in the rain, while her relationship with her husband Shigehiko (Yuji Kotari) is strained, distant. When he’s not vigorously scrubbing the bathroom we see him sleeping alone on the sofa.

Rinko’s journey of self discovery begins when she receives photographs of herself in the post ‘enjoying’ the rain. In the envelope is also a mobile phone on which photographer Iguchi (Tsukamoto playing his own villain again) contacts her, Rinko immediately recognises his voice from her day job. Using the negatives as collateral Iguchi blackmails her into acting out her sexual fantasy, or what he perceives it to be. First she’s forced to wear her mini skirt in public – not so bad right? But then she’s told to buy a vibrator, insert it, leaving the remote control behind, and go buy groceries. In the hands of any other director this protracted scene has the potential to be exploitative or funny. Tsukamoto makes it complicated. He makes it erotic and liberating and terrifying. “Why don’t you do what you want?” Iguchi asks Rinko on the phone. It’s as if their roles of counsellor and client have been reversed; Iguchi clearly wants to help Rinko, even if his methods are somewhat misguided, to say the least. His last request is for Rinko to see a doctor, which, I can say without dropping a major spoiler, ultimately saves her life.

Then it’s Shigehiko’s turn. First he’s drugged, prompting the film’s most memorable and disconcerting dream; Shigehiko is chained in a room with many other salary men and forced to watch, through an S&M type cone strapped to his face, two girls sexually assaulted and then drowned. Eventually he’s humiliated for real (during which the boundary of real and dreamt is heavily blurred) after following Rinko out one night. On a quiet back lot he watches her strip in the rain; he masturbates while Iguchi takes photos from his small car.

John Hughes ‘rites of passage’ it ain’t. But A Snake Of June does have a happy ending (the film’s biggest shock!), the happy, now liberated, couple have sex. Together. And no one turns into a giant metal phallus.

If the narrative weren’t oppressive enough, Tsukamoto also films in the full frame ratio, as if trying to box in his cast. They also have to suffer Japan’s weather too. June, rainy season. Wetter than my holiday on the Isle Of Wight, and humid to boot. Wet and humid. Perhaps the perfect setting for an erotic noir. Tsukamoto originally wanted to make an American style erotic thriller, sex, blackmail etc…, over the years these ideas grew into A Snake Of June. It’s monochrome blue / grey look represents rain soaking into concrete, in case you were asking. A look also inspired by photographers Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton and their striking nudes, if you’re interested.

No Tsukamoto review would be complete without mention of audio. The strange silences are there as is a Chu Ishikawa score. For A Snake Of June’s soundtrack Tsukamoto’s regular collaborator uses both his familiar industrial sounds alongside orchestral sounds to help reinforce A Snake Of June’s tense and brooding atmosphere. Asuke Kurosawa is great as Rinko (the ‘snake’ of the title); sexy, believable and engaging and Yuji Kotari, in one of only two acting credits, plays husband Shigehiko as fallible and sympathetic.

So if watching Tetsuo is like rockin’ out to your favourite punk band, A Snake Of June is akin to immersing yourself in Beethoven, rich and multilayered. It’s a phenomenally good film; it’s erotic, intelligent, horrifying and moving. It’s oppressive and liberating. And the new Blu-ray transfer, lovingly overseen by Tsukamoto himself? Gorgeous.

 A Snake Of June is available from today on remastered UK Blu-ray from Third Window Films.

About the author

Anthony GatesAnthony Gates Anthony Gates
Currently teaches film and dabbles a little with film making. He grew up on horror movies but soon fell in love with Asian cinema as well. Likes anything loud, trashy or just plain daft. Favourite genres remain horror and science fiction but loves a good comedy or though-provoking drama too... More »
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