BeRightBack here, visiting from the Wordsmoker collective at Nathaniel's kind invitation to gab about one of my most fervently-held obsessions: Japanese cinema. "Mezamashii" (目覚ましい) is a Japanese word for "eye-opening," and I'm going to be using this feature to look at some revelatory and memorable moments that have opened my eyes to the distinct pleasures to be found in Japanese films.
I was reminded of today’s pleasure when Robert mentioned that the third film in director Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo series will be showing at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo movies are gritty and abrasive stories of men who begin sprouting metal from their bodies as if undergoing a form of post-apocalyptic puberty. But there's another side to the director, one that gets a bit obscured by Tetsuo's bristling, metal-engorged shadow. In his more beguiling, less confrontationally "avant-garde" films like Gemini and A Snake of June, Tsukamoto explores not the literal infiltration of the mechanical into the human, but rather the melding of gaze and camera. Filling the screen with ravishing images, he tells stories of hidden observers who try to possess this beauty through voyeurism and photography; in A Snake of June, not only is this character a cameramen, he’s played by Tsukamoto himself.
What makes A Snake of June memorable, though, is less Tsukamoto's shadowy turn as a voyeuristic photographer than the stunning central performance by Asuka Kurosawa (no relation to Akira or Kiyoshi) as the object of his obsession, a call-in crisis center therapist named Rinko.
Kurosawa grounds Snake’s intellectualized schematics by building a layered, believable portrait of Rinko as she transforms from a meek and self-sacrificing wife into a strong, beautiful, even fearsome woman who reclaims her sexuality as she stands up not only to the men in her life, but to the apparatuses they wield in their efforts to possess her, including cameras, vibrators, and phones.
The most eye-popping instance of this reclamation occurs about three-quarters into the film, when Kurosawa blazes with strength and sensuality in a scene that winkingly alludes to the robotic-yet-sensual False Maria's dance in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Stripping off her dress in the rain, Rinko takes back the machines that have victimized her, including a remote-control vibrator (initially controlled by Tsukamoto’s character, but now controlled by her), but also the gaze of the camera itself, not only the one held (and then, in the face of her ecstatic performance, dropped) by Tsukamoto's character within the movie, but the one he wields as the invisible but omnipotent director within whose movie Kurosawa is appearing.
A student of mine once wrote in a paper that in A Snake of June, "to be seen is to get wet." June is the rainy season in Japan, and Tsukamoto sets his film within its waterlogged heart; even when dry, everything his camera touches glistens a viscous midnight blue.
But Kurosawa's burning gaze cuts through this slippery sheen and pins the audience to their seats with its unflinching power. Rinko's rain dance refutes the filmic tradition that codes female desire as an averted gaze, an unwilling whimper of pleasure escaping the lips. Instead, she incorporates the machines of alienation, objectification, and male-centered desire and reverses their trajectory, using them to set the rain on fire.
(A Snake of June is currently available on Netflix)