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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Exploring Eros in the modern age

Rokugatsu no Hebi

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Running time: 77 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Since bursting onto the indie scene in 1989 with "Tetsuo," Shinya Tsukamoto has been a one-man show: writing, filming, editing and acting his private visions of a nightmare world in which humans are fused to machines, set to a pounding soundtrack of industrial noise. After becoming a cult sensation, however, Tsukamoto hit an impasse, recycling the same outrages to ever-diminishing effect. In "Rokugatsu no Hebi (A Snake of June)," he has returned triumphantly to form while breaking new ground.

News photo
Shinya Tsukamoto in "Rokugatsu no Hebi"

For all the extreme violence in his work, Tsukamoto displays a fascination with the erotic, as well as a poetic sensibility that owes as much to the masters of the silent film as the avatars of the punk movement. Though some of the imagery and explosions of violence in "Rokugatsu no Hebi" are familiar -- including a mechanical serpent that serves as a grotesque torture device -- the film's examination of modern sexual dynamics represents a departure for Tsukamoto that is at once comic and disturbing as it is revealing and enigmatic. While the film's couple in crisis are less independent entities than expressions of the director's various obsessions, they are more identifiably human than his earlier robotic creations.

The couple in question are Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), a counselor for a telephone crisis service at the county health center, and Shigehiko (novelist Yuji Kotari in his acting debut), a prosperous, workaholic businessman. Rinko is dedicated to her career and devoted to her husband, though he is balding, stocky and old enough to be her father. They live together in an ultra-modern flat that is all angles, shadows and concrete surfaces, without fusuma, tatami or anything else Japanese in sight.

One day Rinko receives an envelope filled with candid snaps of her masturbating. Then she gets a phone call from the photographer (Tsukamoto). Instead of money, he demands that she go out wearing a micro-miniskirt and buy a vibrator. She says she will never comply -- until he tells her she has already been shopping for a vibrator on the Internet. Unsettled and excited, she goes on this unusual shopping expedition and later learns that the mysterious stranger has been photographing her every move. Not long after, she finds out she is suffering from breast cancer.

When Shigehiko hears about his wife's illness and discovers her secret sex life, his carefully ordered world shatters. The stranger, however, turns out to be not only a marriage wrecker, but a catalyst for personal revelation and change.

Tsukamoto tells the story of this odd threesome in black and white, the cool, silvery tones possessing an otherworldly (or rather, netherworldly) beauty. Also, in its striving for detachment and transcendence, "Rokugatsu no Hebi" recalls the work of Robert Bresson or Alexander Sokurov. Rather than fall into homage, however, Tsukamoto creates his own, utterly individual vision of sexual repression and longing, one reminiscent of his previous work, but chillier, smoother and more serpentine.

The two leads, Kurosawa and Kotari, may be a physical mismatch but connect as codependents who feed each other's deeper (and stranger) needs. Kurosawa, with her air of imploding from fear and desire, brings immediacy and drama to what could have been a cliched transition from severe to sensual. Meanwhile Chu Ishikawa's soundtrack provides the techno throb and propulsion expected in a Tsukamoto film, without overwhelming the on-screen action.

Long a master of his own cinematic domain, Tsukamoto has inspired few imitators. Who could hope to copy someone so sui generis? In "Rokugatsu no Hebi," however, he connects with his audience on a new level. He still makes us feel his pain, but he also shows us Eros as a force even stronger than his trademark rage. Rampaging robots are no match for Kurosawa in a micro mini.

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