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A UK region 0 DVD review of FROG SONG / KAERU NO UTA by Slarek
 

A shopper casually browsing the shelves of their local video store who encountered the DVD of Frog Song would be forgiven for instantly classifying it as a surrealistic oddity. The title offers precious little clues to the content, the box blurb describes the film as "truly bizarre," and the cover picture shows a young woman walking hand-in-hand down a city street with an adult-sized humanoid frog, suggesting an amphibian love story twist on Spike Jonze's memorable music video for Daft Punk's Da Funk. All of which is thoroughly misleading and gives no indication of the considerable qualities of what is actually a tender and involving drama on the frailty of friendship.

Frog Song is a literal translation of the Japanese re-release title Kaeru no uta, and was originally released as Enjo-kôsai monogatari: shitagaru onna-tachi, which translates roughly as Friendship Support Story: Women Who Want to Do. Not very poetic, but it does give a clearer indication of the theme. Frog Song is an example of modern pink cinema, and if this term is new to you then you can find a brief summary in our review of Mitsuru Meike's Bitter Sweet. Like most works of this uniquely Japanese sub-genre, Frog Song runs for just over an hour and has the requisite number of evenly spaced sex scenes. In common with many of the better genre works, they are logically and effectively integrated into the surrounding drama and allowed to run only slightly longer than the story needs them to, while their eroticism arises from their sense of realism rather than the music accompanied softcore silliness of traditional western adult dramas.

The links with the aforementioned Bitter Sweet extend beyond the casting of lead actress Konatsu. The narratives of both films are fuelled by an increasing non-permanence in Japanese relationships, with a more empowered female population no longer willing to silently tolerate male infidelity. This stance is graphically illustrated in the opening scene when the young Akemi (Konatsu) angrily hits her boyfriend over the head with a bottle and, muttering a quick apology, walks out on him. She takes refuge in a manga café, but when fellow customer Kyoko (Rinako Hirasawa) picks up the book she had planned to read she becomes disproportionately upset, tearfully harassing the girl until the book is reluctantly returned.

This fraught encounter actually unites the mismatched pair with an economy typical of modern Japanese cinema, established in a single edit and conversational references to discussions that have already taken place. Their friendship develops in sometimes surprising ways. In another nicely executed time-jump edit we find an almost naked Kyoko on bed a receiving the sexual attentions of an older salaryman while the clothed Akemi uncertainly watches on. Only in the scene that follows do we realise that Kyoto is working as a part-time prostitute and that Akemi agreed to participate in an arranged threesome, probably more out of curiosity rather than any desire to actually be involved. The sexual experiences of the two women are clearly very different, as are their relationships with men – for the friendless and live-alone Kyoko, sex is just business, while for Akemi it's part of a relationship that she can't seem to completely break free from, despite catching her boyfriend in bed with another woman the day after their break-up (in a memorably oddball moment, the two women later end up beating each other with French loaves).

A particularly intriguing aspect of Frog Song is that although it adheres to genre conventions regarding the quantity and narrative spacing of the sex scenes, sex itself is shown as having a largely negative effect on the lives of both women. Its purely functional role for Kyoko may or may not be responsible for her state of relative isolation and later proves destructive to her health in general, while the abuse she suffers at the hands of two S&M aficionados is a favourite movie way of suggesting that the time has come to get out of this business. Akemi, meanwhile, doesn't get to sit on the sidelines for long and is pressed by Kyoko into taking on a customer of her own, a task she performs with enough struggling reluctance to prompt her friend to rethink the wisdom of her decision. Later she attempts to follow through on a stalled dream by agreeing to take a beating from a customer instead of sex, a sequence that in a single punch strips this particular form of S&M of even a hint of perverse glamour.

It's the unpredictable and sometimes troubled development of the friendship between the two women that provides the film with its emotional heart. It hits an engaging peak when the pair sing and dance like excited schoolgirls to the Frog Song of the title, but increasingly finds itself on troubled ground. Akemi is repeatedly pestered by her ex-boyfriend to come home, something Kyoko takes a selfish step to prevent, and finds temporary sexual fulfillment by imagining herself in the sort of relationship she has never known. Akemi's frog fascination, meanwhile, which presumably is the source of the above mentioned cover quote about the film being bizarre, is actually no different to that of any young girl with a liking for a particular animal in fluffy toy form, while the life sized frog suit she buys gives rise to the film's most surreal but touchingly affecting sequence, when it is worn by Kyoko as an apology to her friend. Their eventual parting has real emotional sting – too late comes the realisation of their depth of feeling for each other and the relationship that might have been.

The few-years-on coda – introduced in the best time-jump edit in the film – initially seems unnecessary, but follows through on the feminist leanings of earlier scenes to show us two sisters who really are doing it for themselves (hence the original Japanese title). It ends on an everybody-join-in musical dance number that, despite smashing a hole in the film's carefully constructed reality, has a stumbling, hastily choreographed exuberance that just filled me with joy. It's a sequence typical of a film that defies pigeonholing as erotic drama and which very effectively demonstrates just why pink cinema demands its status as a genre in its own right. Frog Song is an involving, moving tale of friendship and independence in a changing society and a fine example of why this genre is so worthy of attention.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1, the picture is letterboxed rather than anamorphically enhanced with the subtitles positioned outside of the picture area. This makes zooming in on widescreen TVs a non-starter unless your Japanese is fluent. Mine isn't, but is good enough to spot a couple of alterations to the Japanese original – 'like' has been promoted to 'love', for example, which makes a difference when you're discussing people – but for the most part they are fine. But why weren't the lyrics to the Frog Song translated? Anyway, the picture itself, within the confines on non-enhancement, is rather good, with solid contrast, generally sound black levels and a decent level of detail, although this does vary a little in later scenes. Some compression artefacts are evident in darker scenes, but are not seriously distracting.

The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 mono, but well mixed and very clear. Silence is well used here, and is pleasingly free of even a hint of hiss. The gentle but sparingly employed acoustic guitar score comes across well.

extra features

Stills
7 frame grabs from the film. Nothing your pause button couldn't give you.

Pink Cinema Introduction
A useful textual introduction to the genre for newcomers.

Short Film: Japanese Box (11:27)
The same short film you'll find on the Bitter Sweet DVD with the same stills gallery.

Blood & Dishonour Book Teaser
A 5-screen gallery promo for the book in question.

Trailers
Trailers for 99 Women, Black Mass and Venus in Furs.

summary

Not a disc to hunt out for its extra features, this is one that stands on the strength of the film itself, and that's good enough for me. Oh, and just for the the fun of it, here's a (very) rough translation of those Frog Song lyrics:

Even if I stick to someone's chest
I still have guts
I can't see the sky
I can't see beyond
Jump and tummy out
I'm the daughter of a frog

Frog Song
Kaeru no uta
Enjo-kôsai monogatari: shitagaru onna-tachi

Japan 2005
65 mins
director
Shinji Imaoka
starring
Konatsu
Rinako Hirasawa
Takeshi Ito
Youta Kawase
Kurumi Nanase
Mutsuo Yoshioka

DVD details
Region 0 UK
video
1.85:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Short film
Trailers
Book promo
Stills
Text introduction
distributor
Salvation Films – Sacrement
release date
24 September 2007
review posted
23 September 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews