A Snake of June



Rokogatsu no hebi : Japan 2002 : TSUKAMOTO Shinya : 77 mins

“It’s about my wife. I want to know what she’s up to”: so says Shigehiko (Yuji Koutari), a hapless fiftyish ‘salaryman’ who suspects his much younger wife Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) is leading some kind of double life – perhaps she’s even conducting an affair with a mysterious third party. It’s a classic set-up from film noir, the genre to A Snake of June nods with his moody score (by Chu Ishikawa), shimmering monochrome (black and blue, not white, this time) cinematography and virtually wall-to-wall rain.

The perpetual downpour that forms the backdrop to A Snake of June (even Woman of Water feels desiccated in comparison) may remind some viewers of that deliberately pretentious line spoken by Woody Allen’s character in Play It Again Sam: “I love the rain – it washes memories off the sidewalks of life!” And Tsukamoto isn’t afraid to veer into some ostentatious artiness of his own here – his story is relatively simple, but it’s told in a deliberately distanced, enigmatic style full of stylistic flourishes and gimmicks: his wobblingly hand-held camera captures intense, fetishistic close-ups of faces, plants, drains, snails (the late snail-lover Patricia Highsmith would surely have adored this movie).

Though this means the movie does – despite its refreshingly short running-time – take a while to get going, it does become surprisingly engaging once Tsukamoto establishes who the characters are and, more importantly, his film’s offbeat aesthetic: distinctive visuals, plus an eclectic score including a particularly effective choral piece. The plot turns out to be surprisingly conventional, even predictable – as in so many movies, a marriage between individuals of disparate ages is presented as sexless and dysfunctional, needing a violent external shake-up in order to function properly. This is provided by Iguchi (Tsukamoto himself) – yet another in the long line of fictional photographers who also happen to be tormented, lonely voyeurs. And the basic set-up is oddly reminiscent of Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967): city-dwelling young wife finds liberation through transgressive sexual activity, leading to a thawing of relations with her distant husband.

Rinko works as a counsellor to the suicidal, dealing with most of her clients via the telephone. One of these is Iguchi, who thanks his ‘saviour’ by making it his business to sort out her unsatisfying sex life. Initially a repressed, buttoned-down non-entity, Rinko slowly and painfully undergoes a sexual reawakening after Iguchi forcibly encourages her to live out her secret fantasies – such as walking around the city in a very short mini-skirt, sans underwear. The therapy works, culminating in a remarkable, delirious ‘photo-shoot’ sequence in a rain-drenched back alley: the now-stunning Rinko cavorts orgasmically while Iguchi (safely ensconsed in a car) repeatedly snaps away, his flash-bulb pulsating like a strobe – and Shigehiko looks on from the shadows, hurtling helplessly towards his own climax. Having sorted out Rinko, Iguchi now turns his attentions to her husband – using rather more violent techniques.

As in the recent (Bunuel-flavoured) American indie hit Secretary, sex in A Snake of June is all about control – self-control (and therefore satisfaction) can only be obtained by intially succumbing to the control of another. And Tsukamoto does seem to have very definite control issues of his own: as well as writing and directing, he’s credited as producer, editor, cinematographer and art director, ensuring his vision reaches the screen in as uncompromised fashion as possible. This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments: a roomful of men watch bizarre sex and violence tableaux through metallic beak-like contraptions attached to their heads; when Iguchi brutally beats up Shigehiko, he seems to have snake-like appendages attached to his body via some kind of corset. The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.

21st July, 2003
(seen 20th July : UGC Middlesbrough)

by Neil Young