I'm a huge Takashi Miike fan, but I struggled a bit with this one. I have no objection to the depraved taboo-breaking, but it took thought for me to decide that the film hadn't been pointless.
It's the last of the six films in the Love Cinema series that began with Tokyo Trash Baby
. These were low-budget and made on digital cameras as a test of the new technology. These were essentially straight-to-video, although they got a short run at the Shimokitazawa cinema in Tokyo.
I mention that because this is confined, small-scale Miike. Even for him, this is a quickie. It has no action sequences. There are no guns, explosions or yakuza. There's a bit of violence at the end, but to be honest it's a bit goofy and it pushed me out of the movie. It's not a horror film, an action film, a gangster film or any other genre, unless you think that Miike's invented his own new one for "twisted and depraved".
Instead it's the story of a family. That's all. There's mum (Shungiku Uchida), dad (Kenichi Endo), son (Jun Muto) and daughter (Fujiko). We begin with an intertitle asking "Have you ever done it with your dad?", followed by a scene of extreme indecency in which Fujiko's in control and Endo keeps saying "this is wrong". It includes digital fogging of the actors' genitals and ends with a financial transaction. She charges dad extra for his premature ejaculation. The most unnerving thing abut this scene is that we can't be sure, whereas at least we wouldn't have the uncertainty if the incest had been confirmed. Are they really father and daughter? Even in a Miike film, they can't be, can they? Surely not?
A hint comes with the second intertitle, which immediately comes true. "Have you ever been hit in the head?" Big rock. Thwack.
Intertitle 3: "Have you ever hit your mum?" This is arguably more disturbing than the first scene. Muto terrorises his mother, Uchida, whose only response is to cringe whenever he comes near and beg "not my face". She's crying before he's even done anything. Meanwhile Muto has a "keep out" sign on the stairs and a cupboard of punishment implements in his bedroom.
This family goes beyond "wrong" into realms that beggar imagination. When Endo invites Visitor Q (Kazushi Watanabe) back for dinner, for instance, no one pays any attention when Muto beats Uchida in front of them. Watanabe tells Muto not to worry about him, then turns on the television. Other scenes in this film include necrophilia, rape, killing, prostitution to pay for drugs, bondage, golden showers, a man getting raped with an improvised dildo and biologically improbable lactation. (You'd need an umbrella.) What's more, it's not just a cartoonish orgy of excess. It's the human touches that bring it to life. I gaped when I realised that Muto was eavesdropping on Uchida and Watanabe, while I don't think it's humanly possible not to laugh at the necrophilia.
Unfortunately the killing scene near the end does lapse into that cartoonishness I mentioned. It's unfair to make the following comparison because the films I'm talking about didn't even exist in 2001, but that scene looks like the daft gore films of Noboru Iguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura et al. But without gore. I'd previously been managing to take the film seriously, but that bit was silly.
So, what's it all about? Miike doesn't make thematically empty films.
The problem is that the film feels hollow, even though it's not. There's a lot of interesting stuff here.
1. Muto is both a disgusting bully and a victim of other disgusting bullies.
2. Endo is obsessed with his digital camera. He used to be a TV presenter until a certain incident made him unemployable, but he's trying to get back into the business and keeps coming up with ideas he can throw at his former editor. Thus he sees real life as just potential material for documentaries. He'll film himself doing things that would have any normal person desperately hunting down and burning all copies of the tapes... and furthermore, as he does so, he'll be delivering a commentary on it to camera. (It's also worth noting that this behaviour gets worse over the course of the film. At the beginning, his reactions are more conventional. Well, apart from the fact that he's paying his prostitute daughter to have sex with her.)
Unfortunately most of these characters don't seem to progress. Muto either bullies or gets bullied. Not a lot of character development there, except face-down into the mud. Endo is more protagonist-like, but unfortunately his character development could more accurately be called degeneration. He's at his most rational and normal at the start, when purchasing the sexual favours of his teenage daughter. Yes, I do realise what I've just said. After that, it's all downhill.
Then there's the Visitor himself, Kazushi Watanabe. This is a familiar story element. Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema is merely one example of a stranger who turns a family's life upside-down... but Watanabe doesn't really do that. He's neither an angel nor a devil. He's the most inconspicuous character in the film, actually. He'll get accused of having destroyed the family, but as far as I can see, he just sprayed some milk and hit a few people on the head with rocks. He doesn't care about anyone, we don't know why he came here in the first place and I don't think his actions directly affected Endo in any meaningful way, for instance. Rocks don't count.
It's rooted deeply in an inversion of traditional power relationships. Children are more powerful than their parents. Uchida is her son's whipped slave, while Endo is an unemployable, increasingly deranged loser who can't even satisfy a woman sexually. Similarly there's another motif of men's impotence and women's dominance and/or power, the latter always being linked to sex. Two of the women here work as prostitutes, while the connection with the third is more unpleasant still. They all get naked, but in disturbing scenes that are trying to repel you, not turn you on.
I think the mother is the key character, which is at once the film's most subversive element and its weakness. You see, Uchida is passive. She's like walking background, not a character. She lets her son beat her and doesn't even try to stop him. She's a junkie and worse. You don't pay her much attention, because there's very little chance of her ever doing anything in the story... but she's the one who grows and develops. She finds self-respect, albeit through a perverted channel that makes you wonder about her sanity. She even finds a sort of happiness with her husband, as they accept each other even at what you'd think would be the worst of times. The film's final image is of her as a sort of Earth goddess, with her subjects suckling at her. It's very, very odd. However she's clearly the story's most important character, going from slave to goddess even as her husband suffers a fall in status nearly as great as her rise.
Uchida's performance is bovine, too. She repels your attention. The actress sounds intriguing, actually, but in this film she's serving the role of this placid, rather unintelligent woman. In real life though, she's a manga artist, novelist, essayist, actress and singer.
I've talked myself into liking this film, but it took me a while and I didn't get there while I was actually watching it. Expect violent reactions if you show this to normal people. They'll probably reject some or all of it as unbelievable, for starters. Why didn't Uchida call the police? Had Endo known she wasn't going to call the police, or by then was he simply too far gone? It feels like shock cinema for its own sake, although it has impressive thematic depth if you're prepared to dig for it. It's just that it also has a small-scale story that's unconcerned with realism and is focusing entirely on idiot denegerates and their freakish behaviour. Notorious even by Miike's standards.
"Look, I can squirt myself now!"