Following on from the wonderful Blu-ray releases of Kotoko, the first two Tetsuo films, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, Third Window Films continues its fruitful relationship with cult Japanese filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto with a high-definition remaster of his erotically charged reverie A Snake of June.
Set during the incessant downpour of Japan’s rainy season, and cast in an oppressive, yet somewhat sensual, blue-tinted monochrome hue (an aspect of the film that has received a poor showing in previous home video releases), A Snake of June is a revitalised reworking of Tsukamoto’s typical story dynamic, which revolves around a couple’s status quo being disrupted by a strange interloper. Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), a counsellor for a hospital’s mental health call centre, is in an amicable although distant marriage with Shigehiko (novelist and occasional actor Yûji Kôtari), an overweight, balding salaryman who is more interested in obsessively scrubbing the floors and sinks of their angular apartment than in intimacy. Behaving more like good friends than lovers, they often find themselves sleeping separately. Rinko’s private acts of secret self-pleasure are caught on camera by Iguchi (played by Tsukamoto himself), a cancer sufferer who had once phoned Rinko’s call centre with thoughts of suicide. To thank Rinko for convincing him to live, Iguchi wants to return the favour by getting Rinko to open up and fully embrace her sexual curiosity, as evidenced by his voyeurism, and offers the negatives on the condition that she completes a set of public sexual tasks. Wanting to keep the scandal a secret from Shigehiko, Rinko reluctantly goes along with Iguchi’s strange form of blackmailing. What follows is a journey of carnal reawakening, for both husband and wife.
Upon cursory inspection, Tsukamoto appears to be channelling the tropes of Japan’s long-running and not always illustrious pinku eiga (softcore sex films) industry, where sexual blackmail, public humiliation and frigid women overcoming their inhibitions are common sights. Yet, despite its subject matter, this is not exploitation but a Tsukamoto film through and through, and it is as considered and thoughtful as any of his gems from the 1990s. What’s particularly refreshing is that it feels in A Snake of June that Tsukamoto finally feels comfortable with dealing with themes of carnality, desire and the flesh in a way that is both candid and honest. He had definitely been courting these ideas for a while. Tetsuo was just as much about erupting sexual impulse as it was about erupting scrap metal, and trichotomic sexual mind games were central to Tokyo Fist and the lamentably underseen Gemini (1999). But with A Snake of June, the metal transformations, the hyperbolic bruises and the colourful dirt and rags are shed, revealing a body that is pure.
Granted, some of Tsukamoto’s fetishistic undertones do remain. The flexible, snake-like metal phallus that dances out from Iguchi’s cancerous stomach is a very deliberate callback to Tetsuo’s nightmare sequence of emasculation and sodomy. A scene where Shigehiko finds himself attending a sex-snuff show where the audience members are bound and forced to watch through a funnelled peephole over the face is an equally surreal highlight. But there is a sense of a greater thesis at work, with Tsukamoto dedicating time to both sides of the relationship’s reawakening – as demonstrated by the use of Mars and Venus gender symbols to apportion the narrative – although Rinko’s perspective ultimately wins out.
Speaking of perspective, Tsukamoto ensures that we adopt the role of voyeur as well by shooting on long lenses, isolating characters within the film’s antiquated 1.33:1 framing ratio, catching the glances of anonymous passers-by, and often having the camera peek from around corners, over walls and through windows. It reinforces the idea of the camera as a tool for penetration, both penetration of privacy and in a more sexual sense, as a taker of nude photographs philosophises at the film’s start: ‘A small camera won’t do. It has to be a big one with a flash. Otherwise you can’t make her come.’ This is put into practice later on when a horny Rinko poses and masturbates in the rain, while Iguchi, armed with a big-lensed camera, snaps away. The light from the flash gun whips across her bare flesh in volleys of ecstasy; the tinted downpour cleansing her of her fears. Tsukamoto shoots and cuts the scene like an instance of passionate lovemaking, with even Iguchi slumped back in his car after the shoot, as if spent; his use of a small, flash-less camera afterwards resembles a moment of post-coital tenderness.
A Snake of June is certainly a blue movie in more ways than one, but those looking for a no-nonsense skin flick may be disappointed. The film is a far more subtle affair, largely eschewing the show-stopping propulsion or overwrought angst that has characterised earlier Tsukamoto work, yet still intense in its own way, with a pleasant dash of mechanical weirdness. It may not be as well-known as his 1990s work, but A Snake of June shows Tsukamoto at the height of his authorial powers.
Watch the trailer: