Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk film Tetsuo: The Iron Man was an instant underground cult classic, one of those great mindfucks you'd show your friends at 2AM in order to give them nightmares. The general consensus about his subsequent films, Tesuo II: Body Hammer, Tokyo Fist and Hiruko The Goblin, was that they didn't quite have the same spark. So, while doubts crept up about him living up to the Lynchian, Cronenbergesque image Tetsuo suggested, he started to get back on track with Gemini. Thankfully, his latest efforts Bullet Ballet and A Snake of June (2002) mark Tsukamoto as a creative, independent artist to watch.
By all appearances, Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) and Shigejiko (Yuji Kotari) are a mismatched couple. She is younger, thin, attractive but not self assured, and works for a crisis hotline. He is older, bald, paunchy, obsessive about cleanliness, and works as a typically mundane businessman. Their marriage is more cordial and mannered than passionate, like two strangers who decided to politely share the same living space.
Rinko receives a letter in the mail. The letter contains an envelope that reads "SECRETS FROM YOUR HUSBAND", and inside are photos of Rinko masturbating on their outdoor porch garden, along with some other candid photos of her out and about town. The final item inside the envelope is a cellphone, and her anonymous stalker (Shinya Tsukamoto) calls her with details on how she can get the negatives and stop the photos.
Her stalker was a former hotline caller, a cancer sufferer that Rinko talked out of suicide. He now begins to engage her in a serious of games, intent to make her act out her private fantasies which he has observed during his time following and photographing her. Though she is initially scared and tormented, Rinko gives into the demands and begins a strange path of self discovery.
A Snake of June is a very assured work of erotic surrealism. A sensual horror film with intelligence (and weirdness) that symbolically conveys the power of repressed desires finally becoming unleashed. Tsukamoto's theme of body horror and emotional/physical disconnection have never been stronger and, arguably, never better realized.
When it comes to sexuality, the easiest route a film could take would be the exploitative, but Tsukamoto doesn't really sink to those depths. It is salacious but not explicit. It makes sense that Rinko would engage the stalkers demands. She is someone living in a guarded and secretive way, so this stranger knowing her private desires has an intimacy she kowtows to as if under a spell. The stalkers masochist demands are only torturous because they are urges she has squelched. It is ultimately about her liberation, though, admittedly it is self liberation through someone else's imposed will, which isn't exactly the healthiest thing... but, hey, it is film surrealism, not reality.
Part inspired by the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, A Snake of June has that indie feel of being done fast, low budget, with a minimum of technical fuss, and, most importantly, with total freedom. Its world is an off kilter reality- a nameless city in the midst of perpetual rainfall. The entire film is processed with a deep blue tint, an aesthetic choice that adds to the otherworldly nature and sensual ebb he is trying to convey. The husband has some disturbing fantasy sequences (one involving Tsukamoto's trademark extreme appendages) that add another level of delirium. In concept, tone, look, and performance, it is unmistakably Tsukamoto further exploring his themes of the urban world and the sometimes nightmarish or animistic desires of the body and the mind (and finding some reconciliation between the two).
The DVD: Tartan
Picture: Fullscreen. 1.33:1. Monochrome. Shot in Tsukamoto's preferred 16mm format. As I stated earlier, the entire film has a blue cast. Tsukamoto likes a rougher look to his films and this is no exception, thus the film has a high level of grain and some chopiness to the cutting. Since color isn't a factor, the only thing left to comment on is the sharpness and contrast. Contrast levels seem fairly deep, however, the image is a tad too soft, as evidenced by clips from the film in the interview section which are much crisper. Technically, the film is so rough (again, intentionally), I had a hard time spotting any transfer defects, but it appears to be free from compression artefacts.
Sound: Japanese language. DTS, 5.1 Surround, or 2.0 Stereo channels with optional English or Spanish subtitles. Again, a bit on the rough and cheap, but the dialogue is always clear. Really only the melancholy score and rainfall sound fx really fill up the speakers. The sound mix is so straightforward it doesn't really benefit from the 5.1 to the much higher end DTS. Still, good.
Extras: "Playing A Snake of June" (19:32) Featurette. Interviews with the actors- all three of them- discussing what drew them to the unusual project. — "Shooting A Snake of June" (19:47) Featurette. Good interview with Tsukamoto and crew (cinematography, lighting, music, and so forth) detailing the technical aspects of the movie and how each related to the films themes — Tartan release trailers— Photo Gallery.
Conclusion: A Bunuel-worthy exercise about sexual repression and fetishism captured with a fragmented dreaminess and mondo energy. While still retaining his rough indie cult edge, Tsukamoto has proven he has a maturity beyond his first hits cyberpunk trappings. For fans of more extreme surrealist cinema, the DVD is certainly worth owning, fair image quality -but decent enough- with some insightful extras.