Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002, 77 minutes, starring Asuka Kurosawa, Yuji Kohtari and Shinya Tsukamoto.
It appears as though, a decade and a half on, any director involved in the late 1980's/early 1990's cyberpunk explosion suffers from being overshadowed by their involvement in said film revolution. Director Shozin Fukui (of Rubber's Lover fame) was wise to drop out of the game early, as other directors, like Shinya Tsukamoto, are the subjects of nothing less than daft, unwarranted stereotyping. Tsukamoto is perhaps (eternally) best known for his cinematic breakthrough, the amazing, unexpected Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Filmed completely in black and white on the thinnest of shoestring budgets, Tetsuo is a hallmark, and a benchmark, against which all other cyberpunk films have been measured. Sadly, its status as a work of genius works against Tsukamoto, who in his later years has shifted away from the flashy, catchy, shifty framework that made Tetsuo so revered, and has moved into other territories of interest.
Stereotypes abound about the director - while it's true that he has made a visible shift from the original frenetic energy of his early cyberpunk days, this isn't a rejection of his original experimental roots. And his move towards more "coherent stories" (which still, it should be noted, aren't even close to the coherence of mainstream cinema) isn't an attempt to demystify his film work by any means; rather, it's one director's attempt to create a more unifying narrative so that the viewer may better understand (in ways that they simply could not in Tetsuo) exactly what they're being bombarded with. That said, A Snake Of June is not Tetsuo, nor will any Tsukamoto film likely ever be, nor any other film in general. But cyberpunk fans should not think this film doesn't have something to offer them, as it's just as much an experimental headtrip as any of the director's back-catalogue assets. A beautiful, blue-filtered, obscenely wet setting is merely the base from which a wild and unexpected story emerges into full black and white view, and from which the viewer's perception of both director Tsukamoto, and his amassed credentials, are skewed to no end.
Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) is a counsellor at a suicide-prevention center with an unsurpassed success level of "talking people down". She is short-haired, demure, polite - she's so amiable that as a viewer I couldn't help but wish that she were my friend, the sort of person I could buy tea for and go shopping with. A positive woman with alarmingly simplistic tastes, she spends her days working dilligently at saving others. At home, she keeps up appearences with her husband Shigehiko (Yuji Koutari), but after the two go to sleep it is apparent there is some sort of drift in their marriage. Shigehiko gets up in the night, every night, and falls asleep on a chaise in another room. Night after night Rinko awakes, finds him lying down, and covers him with a blanket so as to show that despite whatever separation has occured, she still loves him, or at the very least cares for this man.
This platonic existance, having gone on for heaven knows how long, could have continued ad infinitum - that is, until a mysterious envelope comes into Rinko's hands. On the outside, the words "Your Husband's Secrets". Inside: a series of photographs, showing a succession of events on the back patio of Rinko's home. Beginning innocently enough with her overlooking the expanse of the couple's backyard, they continue to show her lifting her skirt; feeling her leg; and finally culminating in her masturbating. Immediately afterwards, a phone hidden inside the envelope rings, and it is a caller - one of her callers from the helpline. Iguchi (Mr. Tsukamoto himself in a bizarre and endearing role) tells her he has found a new reason for living after Rinko gave him the simplistic advice to do whatever it is he wants. Now he repays his believed "debt" to her by forcing Rinko to do the things she wants the most, but has restrained herself from doing.
Rinko, demanding the negatives to these photos, is in turn met with a counter-offer from the caller - wear the miniskirt she made in private and wore alone in her home out in public, and he will give her the negatives. As Rinko had probably expected, it isn't simply the act of wearing the miniskirt the caller wants, but a more carnal extraction of pleasure for Rinko as a result of her actions. She is forced to wear the skirt (without underwear) through a crowded shopping center, to buy phallic foods from a vegetable stand, and in the end to swallow her fear and purchase a sex toy from a shop, it's learned, she's stood outside deliberatingly before. But is that enough to satisfy the caller? And will it be enough to satisfy her new-found intrigue, what this act of public humiliation (and liberation) has opened up within a once-shy, demure woman?
What happens after the scene in the public shopping centre is better left unsaid, as the twists and turns this film make only add to its ultimate satisfying conclusion. But needless to say, the story as presented in its first third is only a base from which a much larger narrative emerges. And the story itself is as intriguing and mystifying as anything Tsukamoto has put out before or since this. Unlike other "arty" films that are esoteric for the hell of it, this film works very hard to present an abstract and unusual story in a way that doesn't reject outsiders, but rather draws the audience in. And what a work of art it is - every single shot in this film, once paused, could hang in a black frame on a gallery wall. Mr. Tsukamoto's abilities at seeing out strange shapes and otherwordly imagery in everyday objects does nothing less than thrill the viewer. When Gore Verbinski directed the 2002 version of The Ring, he used a very clever trick of employing a claustrophobic and "wet" feeling within the film through the use of a blue-tinted filter over the camera. While merely effective in color, Tsukamoto's use of this filter through black and white absolutely breathes isolation into every drenched shot. And the story, which takes place in Japan's rainy season but just as well appears to be shot during a monsoon, doesn't just depend on this isolationist feeling, but rather absorbs it and uses it to further reinforce an already exotic and lively tale of voyeurism and pleasure in the modern world.
A Snake Of June excels for a lot of reasons, but the most earnest is the acting of its two leads, Asuka Kurosawa and Mr. Tsukamoto. Kurosawa starts off distant and aloof, just another female cog in Japanese society. But after the mysterious caller shakes up her very existance, Kurosawa breathes her very self into the character of Rinko, and absolutely convinces the audience of first her fear, then her resolve, and finally her self-awareness. Similarly Tsukamoto plays a disgusting creep very well early on, but later images showing Iguchi as a broken man, a man of sadness and of spite, pull at perhaps a tiny heartstring in the corner of this antagonist - he isn't merely a creep, but he's still no hero as he exhibits himself to be. Both have tremendous chemistry for two actors who never spend one scene together, and their ultimate fates seem inevitable, but like previous Tsukamoto efforts viewers should never expect inevitability in the story.
This film brings up a lot of questions, but unlike more exploitive directors, Tsukamoto intends to answer as many as he can. After the, perhaps unnecessarily, convoluted plotting he insisted upon early in his career, he has become a far more coherent director who tells a damn good story. Rinko's problems are the problems of any person, not just a woman, but anyone who has been in a relationship and found themselves less than fulfilled. How does someone make the most of a situation where the person they've given themselves to for the rest of their lives cannot adequately accomodate their deepest psychological and physical needs and desires? How does a person fight to keep what they already have, and still manage to attain those things they want so deeply inside? Not knowing the director's own reasoning for the film's messages, I could only assume that there are varying levels of motivation for what is presented before the viewer. But what is taken from that, the ideas that are reaped from Rinko's struggles and agonies, are the sorts of things that other directors only wish they could dream up.
Like Ichi The Killer (an entirely different film, don't even get me wrong), there is an ending that could make for itself a book of speculations. But don't let this last page dampen an otherwise terrific story about self-discovery and overcoming one's circumstances, from a director who has had to overcome an entire genre that was thrust on his shoulders. Is this Tetsuo? Hardly – though perhaps there is a little bit of the Iron Man here and there. Instead, this is, I believe, one of the best films of the post-1998 era. Artistic without being pretentious, isolated without being (too) esoteric, A Snake Of June is just what its trailer presents it to be: a delicate film about the ideas, and the urges, that exist within all of us, and the choice between doing what is right for ourselves, or instead for those we love. An absolute treasure of modern cinema, I recommend Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake Of June to anyone who is interested in the bulk of the more serious films presented on this site - an excellent piece of art.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment: 8/10 – Held me from start to finish, which is more than I can say for other Tsukamoto films.
Violence: 4/10 – It's there, but it plays as little more than fodder for the story presented.
Chills: 1/10 – A bizarre scene involving headgear, but that's minscule.
Gross-outs: 0/10 – You know, I can't think of any. Wow.
Sex: 6/10 – If Fukui were still making films I'd point him in Tsukamoto's direction for how to overcome gratuitous love scenes and make them worth a damn.
Is that thing an homage to Tetsuo, or just gross?: I like to think a little of both
Rain: Japan's newest exportable natural resource!
Films in a Similar Style: A Snake of June is actually pretty unique, in the way that only a Tsukamoto film can be.
*** Recommended ***
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A Snake Of June Wallpaper
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.asiaextreme.co.uk/archive/asiaextreme2003/snakeofjune/index.html - Official Tartan Video mini-site with gallery and trailers
http://shinyatsukamoto.info/Gal_Snake.php - Gallery from the essential shinyatsukamoto.info. Make sure you look around the rest of the site too
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/snakejun.shtml – Midnight Eye Review: also http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/shinya_tsukamoto.shtml which is a contemporaneous interview with Tsukamoto
http://horrortalk.com/reviews/SnakeOfJune/SnakeOfJune.htm – Image-heavy Horror Talk review
http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/snakejune.php – Impartial DVD Verdict review
http://www.scifislacker.com/films/snake_of_june.shtml - Review, but also contains a statement by Tsukamoto about the movie
http://www.sarudama.com/movies/snakeofjune.shtml - Scott Foutz of sarudama give the movie a once-over
http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/03/07/025117.php - Wordy but articulate review