Judge Adam Arseneau is a mongoose of July.
"Tell me what made you become so daring at this rainy time of year. Something has burst inside of you."
Hallucinogenic and dreamlike, Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake Of June continues the well-established sexual dysfunction and claustrophobic paranoia of his previous films such as Tetsuo and Bullet Ballet, but tones the visual explosion and chaos down a few notches, crafting a densely metaphorical cinematic experience of voyeurism and desires fueled by subtlety and speculation rather than destruction and violence.
Sound fun? Then this film will be right up your alley.
Facts of the Case
Rinko works as a suicide/crisis counselor, taking calls from the distressed day in and day out. She is married to Shigehiko, a successful and wealthy businessman, who is extremely dedicated to his job. She is stunningly beautiful, energetic, and vivacious; he is frumpy, bald, obsessively neat and clean, and a workaholic. They coexist in the same house and occupy the same space, but other than a loose association of household chores and pleasantries, they really have nothing in common. Shigehiko seems a sterile, dull individual, while Rinko bursts with life, energy, and secret desires.
One day, Rinko notices a strange package in the mail, labeled "SECRETS FROM YOUR HUSBAND." She opens the letter to reveal a series of photographs of herself, taken in suggestive positions and compromising sexual activities around the house. Horrified, she hides the pictures, but the next day, another package arrives with more photos, this time bundled with a cell phone. On the other end is a mysterious man she recognizes as a caller from her suicide hotline, who starts blackmailing her into bizarre acts of sexual liberation and servitude in public places in exchange for the negatives. At first Rinko is appalled and humiliated by the acts of sexual expression, but eventually she finds herself enjoying the experiences more than she is prepared to admit…
A Snake Of June is a reclamation of the eroticism of things traditionally frowned upon in society, the repressed desires or actions not subjected in the domain of the mind. Desire is a far more primal and undeniable urge and cannot be regulated by the brain, and the film brings to the surface feelings of sexuality and psychological urges deeply buried in its protagonist, and by association in society as a whole. Akin to David Cronenberg's Crash, the film tackles the sticky issue of desire placed into uncomfortable and challenging environments, of sexual repression that runs against the grain of conventional thinking and the social limitations of a society. It also examines the sticky and delicate subjects of men wearing giant black tentacle-like robotic penises that snake around people and strangle them.
Still paying attention? Giant metal penises. That's right.
One thing I should have mentioned earlier: A Snake Of June is strange. Really, really strange. It also spends a lot of time being strange. For example, during Reiko's struggle for sexual liberation, the mysterious stranger indeed helps knock down the walls of her repression and reawakens her own desires, which takes about half an hour of film time. Then, for the next fifty minutes or so, things take a turn, so to speak. Like a man getting drowned in a gigantic fish tank while a chorus of suited men wearing giant cones on their faces watch. I told you—it's strange.
If you choose to dismiss the film as nothing more than an exercise in weirdness, feel free—it would save your brain a lot of trouble not having to peel apart the delicate and densely layered symbolism, cultural theory, sexual exploitation, voyeuristic and hedonistic desires, and so on. But all this stuff is present in the film, whether you choose to embrace it or not, and considering that director Tsukamoto spent years of his life writing, rewriting, working and reworking A Snake Of June, chances are he meant every single suggestive element. As far as puzzlers go, A Snake Of June starts working deep in your belly and swirls its way around, as though being spun in a centrifuge. There are nuances upon nuances here to be discovered and analyzed, debated and pontificated, which makes for a truly fascinating cinematic experience unlike any other you have seen.
Rinko's embrace of the sexual exploration spills over to her husband Shigehiko (who is wound even tighter than she is) and soon the mysterious stranger, played to eerie precision by director Shinya Tsukamoto himself, starts working his mojo on him also; the climax of which is quite possibly the strangest sequence of events I have ever seen in a motion picture. And to be perfectly frank, I have seen some seriously messed-up films in my time. The film also deals with the decay of the body, which goes hand-in-hand with the sexual desires of the body, and makes a very puzzling comparison between sexual repression and cancer, as if suggesting that denial of a body's primal urges causes the body to destroy itself from within and decay. It needs to be seen to be believed. This entire review cannot do a film like this justice.
A particularly troubling / intriguing element in A Snake Of June stems from Rinko's obvious delight at the experiences she is put through. Were she simply to resist the mysterious stranger's requests vehemently, the film would never be able to distinguish itself from the painfully tedious discourse of a sexual thriller. But the fact that Rinko genuinely grows to like (if not like, then certainly appreciate) the tasks put to her elevates the film into new and dangerous locations, into intensely personal examinations of the human sexual drive and desire. It wouldn't be a Shinya Tsukamoto film unless you could take it back to the repression and breaking of the Japanese society, ready to burst at the seams, the underlining violence that threatens to bubble up beneath the working-class yadda yadda, and so on. It's good to know that some things never change.
I love this film; I really, really do. I do not pretend to understand all its subtle nuances and sly inferences, but I love the mystery of the film, the sexual tension, and the plain esoteric weirdness that makes my brain run around gibbering in the corner of my skull, whining like a hungry dog. There are simply so many things going on in A Snake Of June that it is impossible to address them all. To me, personally, the element I find the most fascinating is how Tsukamoto seems to suggest that sexual liberation is akin to being reborn; that a life filled of repression is actually a form of death. The stranger, who first encountered Rinko by calling in to the suicide helpline, feels that Rinko has saved his life, so he wishes to return the favor and "save" Rinko's life by breaking her free of her mental, social, and sexual constraints that keep her deeply unsatisfied.
But that is simply one interpretation—there are dozens of other ways to interpret this film. Even the titles of the letters sent to Rinko—"SECRETS FROM YOUR HUSBAND"—could be interpreted from multiple angles. Are these secret desires her husband has, or are these secrets she keeps from her husband? Or could it somehow be both? Rinko is so desperate to stop her husband from seeing the photographs of her doing completely natural, sexual things—why? And what is being said by the fact that Rinko clearly starts to enjoy the attention, the sexual liberation of tearing free from her constraints? This is what you find yourself doing when you watch A Snake Of June. Depending on your temperament, you will find the film an intensely enjoyable and fascinating exercise into the demons and psyche of the human heart, or…well, total crap. It could go either way.
The performances in the film are quite excellent. Asuka Kurosawa cuts a stunningly seductive and beautiful path as Rinko, bringing genuine sexual tension and energy to the performance. It does not hurt matters that she is incredibly attractive, but that is more an editorial slant than a level-headed and objective observation. Yuji Kohtari, the husband, is perfectly cast as a balding and pot-bellied workaholic, whose only release in life is a hypochondriac obsession with cleanliness and scrubbing sinks and bathtubs with curious desire. The two strike a peculiar balance between having no chemistry whatsoever, and having dynamite intensity, depending on the sequence of events. Shinya Tsukamoto brings his typical blank-faced performance to bear on this film, and you get the sense he could have sleepwalked his way through the role. This is not to say he doesn't do a great job, but having seen the majority of his films, these roles seem to be disturbingly natural for him.
Shot in a peculiar and dreamlike blue-and-white color scheme, the entire film feels wet and melancholic, like a fevered dream. In the city, it is always raining, with practically no exceptions, and the constant theme of falling water is so fundamental to the film that the bluish tint only helps emphasize a constant feeling of moisture, wetness, and precipitation, the sexual connotations of which I leave to your imagination. The transfer is a strange one, presented in full screen (its native format, believe it or not), shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical presentation. The blues and grays and blacks are muddled, cloudy, and hazy, though undoubtedly a result of the blow-up process from 16mm to 35mm, but also exactly the look Tsukamoto aimed to achieve in this film. The transfer is quite detailed (considering) and presents the film with hardly any defects or imperfections. The film exhibits a certain quirky softness, but never degrades or jumbles upon closer examination. The print is not perfect and occasionally exhibits some damage, but on the whole is quite a top-notch transfer.
Three audio tracks are included: a DTS track, a Dolby Surround 5.1 track, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. All three sound quite splendid, fairly quiet and with a light hand on the bass response, but have perfect clarity. The string-laden, somber operatic music scores constantly throughout the film, pulsing like the beat of a heart, practically unnoticeable but adding a palatable sense of dread and tension. Admittedly, the 2.0 stereo track lacks the immersive quality of the surround tracks, but find me a stereo track that doesn't! To be honest, having the choice between three tracks could almost be considered something of overkill for a film like this, with minimal soundtrack and ambient noises. The fidelity and clarity of the DTS track indeed champion the Dolby 5.1 track, noticeable in the gentle tinkle of the ambient rain noises which lack a certain sparkle and richness in the 5.1 track. But three audio tracks? For this kind of movie? It seems slightly excessive, especially given the noticeable lack of a director's commentary. I would have been happy passing on either the 5.1 or the DTS track in favor of a full-length director's commentary, or even something by Tom Mes or a similar Japanese film scholar. A film like this really needs intellectual examination and debate, not alternative surround modes. One would have been more than sufficient.
In terms of extras, we get a photo gallery, some preview trailers, a theatrical trailer, and two featurettes. "Playing A Snake Of June" is a 20-minute interview feature with actors Shinya Tsukamoto, Asuka Kurosawa, and Yuji Kohtari discussing their respective roles. The interviews range in scope from well-perceived observations and revelations about the character's motivations to bizarre tales from behind-the-camera, like how Tsukamoto tried to lose sufficient weight for the role of the stalker character and had to be taken off the set by an ambulance. Fantastic stuff. The second featurette, "Shooting A Snake Of June" focuses mostly on director Tsukamoto talking from the director's chair about his directorial decisions in creating his film. In the previous documentary, Tsukamoto spoke mostly about his role as an actor, so it is quite refreshing to have a totally different interview experience from the man discussing site locations, color timing, aspect ratios and such, along with his crew. Though the disc is relatively slim on extras, the two featurettes are of excellent quality, and quality is always preferable over quantity in my book.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As stated earlier—but it bears reiteration—depending on your sexual libido and mental psyche, this glowing review could easily be interpreted as intensely negative. After all, what might seem interesting and challenging to one could very well be horrifying and uncomfortable for another. Prior to watching A Snake Of June, I had no idea how many deep layers the phrase "definitely not for everyone" could take on. A lot, as it turns out. An awful lot.
This film works for me for the same reason a film like Crash works for me. If it doesn't work for you, then stop reading this review right now, turn off your computer, and start running as fast as you can, because we are coming after you.
A Snake Of June stands out as a superior Shinya Tsukamoto film, partly because the film connects on deep and primal emotional levels in ways his previous films failed to do, and partly because of its easy accessibility—at least for a Tsukamoto film. For any other filmmaker, this would be a cruel, nihilistic exercise in voyeurism, but compared to his other work, A Snake Of June is like a summer drive in the country. Well, not at all, really. In fact, it couldn't be less like a summer drive in the country, unless your leisurely drives in the country regularly feature repeated episodes of sexual dysfunction and perversion. But you get the idea.
Tsukamoto stands beside cinematic purveyors of the weird like David Cronenberg and David Lynch—a peddler of the deeply unsettling and the obtuse, obsessed with stripping bare the visceral discontents and anxieties in our society and thrusting the deep, dark hidden material directly into our field of vision just to watch us squirm. A Snake Of June's brilliance lies in its profound ability to unsettle and disrupt the synapses in your brain without ever doing anything particularly graphic. The film taunts and tantalizes the brain more than the eye, and the restraint exhibited is quite impressive.
As a director, Tsukamoto has found in this film a different voice from his previous work, a subtle wrecking of the internal rather than an outright destruction of the external body, a trend that continues through his later work in films like Vital. Sure, okay, a guy gets a giant metal snake penis, but the fact that in A Snake Of June (a) nobody turns outright into a robot, (b) there are no goblins, and (c) nobody spends all day licking their guns indicates to me a certain level of progress on the part of the director, a growing sense of maturity and sophistication.
Intellectually unsettling and sexually challenging, A Snake Of June is as fine as psychological thriller exists, and a crowning jewel in Tsukamoto's illustrious and esoteric career. If you had to see one Tsukamoto film in order to give the director his fair due, this would not be a bad place to start—if you come away intrigued, then full steam ahead.
Not guilty, but oh dear Lord, this film sure isn't for everyone. Just make sure you know what you're getting into.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Featurette: "Playing A Snake Of June"
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