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Girl watch
A region 2 DVD review of A SNAKE OF JUNE / TOKUGATSU NO HEBI by Slarek, comparing the Japanese Happinet 2-disc Special Edition with Tartan's recent single-disc UK release.
 
"The original idea I had was different from the film as it is now.
More violent, more pornographic and more immoral."
Director Shinya Tsukamoto interviewed at midnighteye.com

 

Young phone counselor Rinko is in a sexless marriage with older businessman Shigehiko. One day she is sent a package containing illicitly taken photographs of her masturbating, browsing the internet for dildos and dressing in a the sort of super-short mini skirt she would never wear in public. A second set pictures is accompanied by a phone, through which the photographer Iguchi contacts her, threatening to show the pictures to her husband unless she agrees to act out her private fantasies in a public location. Shigehiko is seemingly unaware of either his wife's fantasies or her present predicament, and has developed an obsession with cleaning, but Iguchi also has plans for him.

After the beautifully formal compositions of the 1999 Sôseiji [Gemini], A Snake of June [Tokugatsu no hebi] finds Tetsuo director Tsukamoto Shinya back in more familiar territory, shooting in black-and-white (though here with a steely blue tint) on 16mm and exploring one of his favourite themes, that of the liberation and destruction of the body, often via the route of pain and humiliation. This was perhaps at its most blatant in the 1995 Tokyo Fist [Tôkyô-ken], and those familiar with that work will find much that is familiar in A Snake of June, stylistically as well as thematically. The film again features a trio of central characters made of one female and two males, one of whom is again played by Tsukamoto himself and all of whom are suppressing emotions that will be externalised through the process of disruption and manipulation by another member of this group. The difference here is that Tsukamoto is dealing with sex rather than violence, and for a portion of the audience this will change everything. Indeed, it's fair to say that many potential and actual viewers of this film will be put off or react badly to the its seemingly exploitative use of its central female character. And they may indeed have a point (which I will come to in a while), but I suspect some of these very same offended viewers will have no problem with the violent slaughter on show in the likes of Kill Bill, and not see that as exploitative in any way. "It's just a comic book, man!" Well, this is just a semi-surrealistic erotic body-horror drama. Man.

The film is divided into three sections by familiar icons representing male and female, the final section seeing the two combined into a unified symbol. It is the first half-hour that is likely to prove most troublesome for many (dare I say Western) viewers, as Tsukamoto, both as director and actor, puts Rinko through the emotional grinder, forcing her to act out what his character believes are desires that she is suppressing, so much so that it's on the verge of producing a physical change in her body. Right from the start Tsukamoto the director connects us to Rinko by viewing almost everything from her viewpoint, achieved by shooting her in sometimes uneasily intimate close-up. By the time he has her walking the street, terrified by the attention her short dress is attracting, I for one was cringing for her, and when she returns to a public toilet to change and cries with frustration my discomfort level was upped a few more notches. And this is before she is forced to walk the streets wearing and internally located vibrator, which her tormentor is able to trigger remotely...

The second story is shorter and deals with her husband Shigehiko, and the narrative shifts into altogether stranger and perhaps metaphoric territory. Early on Shigehiko is drugged and wakes as part of an audience for what appears to be snuff theatre. Their hands manacled behind their backs, their vision restricted by conical metallic visors strapped to their face, the captive onlookers forced to watch as a young couple are abused and then drowned before their eyes. Here Shigehiko is given a preview of is own future, both in the threat to his life that lays ahead and his own masturbatory voyeurism when he follows Rinko to an orgasmic photoshoot in a secluded alley. The snuff theatre is as surrealistic as the film gets, and it's a startling leap after the relatively naturalistic tone of the preceding scenes, a sort of bizarre melding of Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and City of Lost Children era Caro and Jeunet.

Rinko, meanwhile, turns things round on her tormentor Iguchi, taking control of her own experience and coldly refusing to sympathise with Iguchi's deteriorating physical state. Increasingly Iguchi seems to be a metaphoric figure – he triggers Rinko's own sexual self-awareness and her discovery of her own changing body condition, and violently punishes Shigehiko for a selfishness that may kill Rinko, in part using a biomechanical tendril that emerges from his decaying stomach. His physical existence is actually called into question early on in the story when a bullet aimed successfully at him by Shigehiko is revealed to have pierced nothing more than Shigehiko's own business suit, while a curious moment has Iguchi placing a photographic self portrait next to a shot taken of the room from the very same angle in which he is not present – is he imagining his eventual non-existence at the hands of cancer or asking us to reflect on his unreality? Certainly there is an artificiality to his photographic exploits – Rinko is always fabulously lit and perfectly framed, never more so than in the alley shoot, the visual splendour of which may almost have been created in Rinko's own fantasy.

Throughout the film Tsukamoto uses a circular motif to link every character and incident. The plug-holes that Shigehiko obsessively cleans, the round skylight that a bathing Rinko looks through (and through which she is presumably observed by Iguchi), the conical visors that are fixed to the faces of the snuff movie audience, the window on the tank in which the victims are drowned, even the logo on the drain down which the never-ending June rain pours. This is open to multiple readings, but seems to be primarily linked with the whole concept of voyeurism and gender – the camera lens, flashgun and human iris are also circular, and the circle is the only common feature of the symbols used here to represent male and female, and the shape with which both can be effectively merged into a single icon. Water is also key, and in interview Tsukamoto has linked the June rains in Japan with an observably increased eroticism at that time of year, and to water as a reviving force. It should also be noted that on the extras disc, Tsukamoto says that water on skin was always intended to be a key aspect of the film's eroticism.

There is a great deal that could be written about this film and I've only touched on a few of the components. The wonderful thing about a work that does not lay its cards blatantly on the table is that there are so many ways to read it, and Snake of June certainly qualifies here. Some will find it exploitative and even offensive, but it has been championed elsewhere as a feminist work (the same discussion was key to any reading Takashi Miike's Audition), and despite the original intentions quoted at the start of this review, Tsukamoto takes a decidedly restrained approach to what he shows on screen, keeping the nudity to a minimum and more often than not using suggestion rather than graphic presentation.

Whether the film says anything new is debatable, but in the context of Japanese society, with its emphasis on ritual and surface politeness, many of these elements do have a contextual freshness. In the end what sells it is Tsukamoto's typically compelling use of camera – a combination of formally composed static shots, drifting wheelchair tracks and twitchy, long-lens close-ups – and a brave and utterly committed central performance from Kurosawa Asuka. This is doubly important in a film of so few characters, especially as she has to carry the emotional weight of the film in a role that many would have shied away from (see extras info for more on this). Though he has seemingly less to do, Kôtari Yuji delivers when it counts as Shigehiko, and Tsukamoto himself certainly immerses himself in the role of cancerous photographer Iguchi. In one of the featurettes he talks about the diet he undertook to lose enough weight to play someone dying from cancer, but he's a thin man at the best of times, and especially considering the film's overall look you'd be pushed to see that physical transformation on screen. By the way, that is Kitano Takeshi regular Susumu Terajima in a cameo role as the cop who accuses Shigehiko of being a peeping tom and later has his gun stolen.

A Snake of June is not an easy work or an easy sell, but three viewings in I have become increasingly convinced of its considerable virtues, despite some lingering apprehension over its presentation of its central female character, and my own position as a (male) audience member and voyeur. But maybe that's the point – a female friend who watched the film was not made to feel uncomfortable by anything in it; indeed, she described the overall effect as 'liberating'.

sound and vision

Most Tsukamoto films present a challenge when reviewing the picture quality – shot on grainy 16mm, they are never going to meet the standards of sharpness, picture contrast and (well, obviously) colour we traditionally judge modern films by. I am in no way making excuses here, but the blue-tinted monochrome and even the film grain are very much part of the film's visual aesthetic and on the whole they are well served by the transfer on the Happinet Japanese disc. Contrast is generally good, and though there is the occasional spate of artefacting in large areas on one shade, I found the transfer very pleasing, given the limitations set by the print.

The Tartan UK release shares many of these limitations, but suffers from less impressive constrast and a slightly softer picture. This appears to be the result of an NTSC to PAL transfer (identifiable with ghosted freeze frames, especially on a computer-based DVD drive). Some highlights lose fine detail through burn-out, and the blacks, such as they are, are not quite there. This is particularly evident in scenes with large areas of shadow, which have a blue-grey feel to them rather than a blue-black, if you get what I mean. It's still very watchable, but the Japanese disc is definitely superior.

Both Japanese and English subtitles are provided on the Happinet disc. The English subtitles are decently translated and always clear, though individual letters seem graphically a little trimmed on the edges. They are always legible, though, and you soon forget this. The subtitles on the Tartan disc are clear and a good size throughout.

There are two soundtracks available on the Japanese disc, 5.1 and DTS, both in the original Japanese. The 5.1 is good, but the DTS track is first rate: rain thunders down from every direction, flashguns fire with the wallop of canons, and bass tones on the music track send a room-shaking rumble from the subwoofer. Tsukamoto uses sound effects and music to excellent effect and it's been a long road since the mono track of Tetsuo to this fine mix.

Both of these tracks are included on the Tartan disc, the company now having made a solid commitment to DTS. In addition, a Dolby 2.0 track is included, but this is considerably inferior to the 5.1 and DTS, for obvious reasons.

extra features

Here the two releases are on different planets.

The UK Tartan release is a bare bones, pretty much movie only affair. The only real extra of note is the Theatrical Trailer, and it is the original Japanese one, subtitled in English. This runs for just over two minutes and is anamorphic 16:9, not the ratio in which the film was shot but a likely concession to cinemas stringing trailers together for screening and not wanting to be bothered with lens or screen mask changes. The usual Tartan trailer reel is present, and includes trailers for Tartan's recent releases in the 'Asia Extreme' range and one for Tsukamoto's debut feature, Tetsuo.

The Japanese release is a two-disc special edition and has a very decent set of extras, with the film itself on disc 1 and the bulk of the extras on disc 2. Disc 1 also contains a single extra, Michio's Album, a gallery of the photos taken by Iguchi and found in the photo album later in the film. The pictures themselves are quite large, though not full screen, and though an interesting extra, the inclusion of Iguchi's voyeuristic photos of Rinko will no doubt appeal to a small portion of the film's audience in more than an artistic sense.

Disc 2 has menus in both Japanese and English, but this is where the cross-cultural assistance ends – none of the extras are subtitled, severely limiting their usefulness to UK viewers. This is a damned shame, as they are actually very good and help shed some light on the thinking behind the film and the approach to the characters taken by director and stars.

The main menu have five selections, some of which have sub-menus within them: Production, Distribution, Theatrical Trailer, Gallery and Staff and Cast. Production contains two featurettes.

Playing A Snake of June consists of interviews with lead players Kurosawa Asuka and Kôtari Yuji, with Tsukamoto contributing from his standpoint as both a performer and director. This is all interesting stuff, though Tsukamoto is occasionally a little willfully obscure, but is most valuable for Asuka Kurosawa's take on playing a role that that you would think she had to be almost coerced into accepting. It comes as a considerable surprise to find that on receiving the script she was immediately sold, feeling that no other part she had read had allowed her to express her own feelings and personality so well. As a result, far from having to be persuaded to take the part, she actively and aggressively pursued it. The interviews are shot on 4:3 video and for the most part very sharp and clear – Tsukamoto and Kôtari at least are photographed in a brightly lit studio setting against a blue screen, but Kurosawa has been filmed in the more dingy setting of a TV control room, with extracts of the film playing behind her on multiple monitors. The interviews run for almost 20 minutes in total.

Shooting A Snake of June is also shot 4:3 on video and also runs for almost 20 minutes. A fair amount of ground is covered here, including the decision to film using a 'square' format, the choice of a duotone blue for the look of the film, the repeated use of the circle motif, and the creation of constant heavy rain (which was achieved by spraying water into the air with a collection of ordinary hoses rather than with some sophisticated and expensive rain machines). There are a wider variety of interviews here, and include those involved in creating the film's look, sound effects and music. Again this is interesting stuff and expands beyond the interviews to include on-set photographs and even a brief musical performance by the composer of the film's score, Ishikawa Chu. It's still going to prove hard work for non-Japanese speakers.

Distribution also has two featurettes, the first of which, Welcome Back Tsukamoto, is shot on 4:3 video, runs for 14 minutes and takes a look at Tsukamoto's career and his personal marketing of A Snake of June through film festival appearances. Narrated by Kôtari Yuji, sometimes straight to camera from the blue-screen location of the other featurettes, it starts off with a collection of stills but soon moves into video footage of Tsukamoto and his lead players at the 59th Mostra Internationale d'Arte Cinematographica in Venice in 2002, where the film won the San Marco Special Jury Award and the Kinematrix Film Award. This includes the screening of the film itself and the ovation it received afterwards, plus a flavour of the press coverage of Tsukamoto. One nice bit has Tsukamoto up for an award and reluctant to step forward until the DV cameraman who is shooting this footage is ready to film, then read his thanks in Italian from notes written on the palm of his hand.

A Snake of June in Tokyo runs for just 3 minutes and has Tsukamoto, Kurosawa and Kôtari attending various screenings, functions and even shops in Tokyo. Though a little more superficial than the preceding featurette, the trip to HMV does give a glance of the sort of merchandising that has been attached to the film, with a neat 3D display (the facial cones are emerging from a 2D image) and a selection of T-shirts, billboards and posters of the sort we in the West associate more with big Hollywood films. I'm already chasing after one of the T-shirts – this disc set did come with a brochure containing a very wide selection of marketing materials.

There are two Theatrical Trailers – a 40 second teaser trailer and the final release trailer, which runs for close to 2 minutes. The full trailer gives a fair flavour of the film itself, but curiously both are formatted non-anamorphic 1.85:1.

The Gallery has three sub-sections: Award contains pictures of the awards won by the film; Materials has some of the fliers and posters used to promote the film and Item contains some of the associated merchandising materials, though by no means all of them. An OK gallery, but thin. I'd like to have seen that 3D display board in here. I'd like to have that 3D display board!

Finally Staff and Cast has brief biographies and filmographies for Tsukamoto, Kurosawa, Kôtari and Chu Ishikawa, who has composed the scores for all Tsukamoto's films to date.

summary

A Snake of June is only going to find a specialist audience in the UK and some of them are going to have problems with it, but I would urge those with a taste for the unusual to give it a try, as there is a reasonable chance you might really like it. Tsukamoto fans need no urging – the man is a one of the most compelling filmmaers in modern cinema and A Snake of June is riddled with elements both familiar and unexpected, exploring the director's favourite themes but from a different, potentially more confrontational angle. And technically it's as assured as ever – Tsukamoto may have calmed down a tad since Tetsuo, but he's still way out there and making the sort of films we celebrate here at Outsider.

The Tartan disc does well on sound, but is a tad wanting on picture, thanks to what looks like (another) NTSC to PAL pulldown. The lack of extras is disappointing, especially considering the number on the Japanese release, but it's unlikely Tartan could fork out for the subtitling of these features, especially considering Tsukamoto's still small cult status here. Fortunately he is more widely acclaimed in his native Japan and the Happinet 2-disc 'premium' release boasts some really interesting stuff, but unless you know your way around the Japanese language then there will be little advantage of coughing up for this version (though the picture definitely has the edge). For those of you that can speak the lingo, or know someone who can, then my advice is to finds someone who is travelling to Japan soon and ask them to pick it up (or send it to you – thanks again, Hiro-san!), as the cost of importing it is pretty steep at present.

A Snake of June
Tokugatsu no ebi

Japan 2002
98 mins
director
Tsukamoto Shinya
starring
Kurosawa Asuka
Kôtari Yuki
Tsukamoto Shinya
Terajima Susumu

DVD details
region 2 (Japan)
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
Japanese
English
extras
Playing a Snake of June featurette
Shooting A Snake of June featurette
Distribution features
Trailers
Michio's album gallery
Marketing and awards gallery
Filmographies
distributor
Happinet Pictures
release date
Out now

region 2 (UK)
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Trailers
distributor
Tartan
release date
26 Jan 2004
review posted
26 February 2004

related reviews
Tesuo / Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
Tokyo Fist
[DVD review]
Tokyo Fist
[Blu-ray review]
Bullet Ballet
[DVD review]
Bullet Ballet
[Blu-ray review]
Sôseiji
Vital
Haze
Kotoko

See all of Slarek's reviews