Indulge me in a bit of autobiographical fiction:
It's winter 1985 and I'm reading the latest semi-monthly issue of a mimeographed underground movie fanzine put out by a guy from Madison, Wisconsin on bi-folded 11x14 red paper. I spot a purple-prose blurb about a fetishistically violent, 16mm Japanese punk film called Yami no Carnival. The blurb is accompanied by a small, high-contrast, black-on-red still of a punk girl naked from the waist down lying on a slab of concrete bleeding profusely from the vagina. I read that although it played at the Berlin and Montreal International Film Festivals and at Cannes' Critic Week in 1983, it's commercially unavailable in the US. Four years later, away at college, I finally manage to procure a 4th gen, off-speed German-subtitled VHS copy of Yami no Carnival in trade for an even worse copy of Goddo Supiido Yuu! Burakku Emparaa. Yami no Carnival instantly enters heavy rotation on the VHS-driven TV that's a backdrop to my life for the next three years.
I'd like to say that story is true. Unfortunately, Carnival in the Night (Yami no Carnival) didn't even exist for me until I read Midnight Eye's gushing review last summer. Now, I've finally seen it for myself on the new DVD release by Facets.
Directed by Masashi Yamamoto, Carnival in the Night (1982) was filmed mostly on grainy 16mm black and white film stock, on real locations predominately in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, using non-professional actors playing approximations of themselves. Exterior scenes rely on post-production sound that alternates between dialogue and broadcast commercials. Interior scenes have the actors competing with the camera's hum for dominance on the synchronized audio track. The occasional song punctuates the action.
Carnival in the Night documents a weekend in the life of Kumi (Kumiko Ota), a young woman who balances her life as a free-spirit against her responsibilities as a single mom. The film begins in a washed-out color opening scene that places the film in Shinjuku. The film shifts to black and white for the first interior scene: a seedy basement bar where Kumi fronts a marginal punk band playing to a small room of disinterested toughs and effeminate homosexuals. When the stage show ends, the floor show begins as club patron Papou sates his boredom by beating another patron and stealing the door receipts.
The film shifts back to color as Kumi, now in toned down clothing, picks up her young son from childcare. For the next several minutes we're voyeurs to acts of genuine motherly concern and affection. The performance between mother and son here is so good that it comes as no surprise to learn that the toddler is played by Kumiko Ota's own son. Next morning she passes the boy off to his father, played by Ota's actual ex-husband, for the weekend. Kumi then goes to a public restroom and slips out of her motherly clothes and persona. The film shifts back to black and white as Kumi dons her punk attire and attitude. Kumi's weekend now begins.
The camera follows Kumi as she buys jewelry on credit in one shop, and resells it for cash in another. She then borrows a WW-II era pistol from a burnt-out old anarchist who spends his time in a sub-basement pouring over maps and schematics of Shinjuku's streets and gas mains planning where to place a bomb for maximum destruction. Kumi heads out to test the pistol by shooting up a phone booth.
We recognize the club tough Papou again when Kumi visits his small house. He is burning and eating money, putting to rest any doubts that his criminal activity is motivated by pecuniary desire. They mess around a bit. When Papou leaves to look for some new trouble to get into, Kumi, still unsatisfied, masturbates. Perhaps a bit thirsty, Papou mercilessly beats a milkman for a bottle of milk.
Now Kumi heads off for her own trouble which begins with forcing a homosexual prostitute into sex, and ends with being savagely beaten in the streets by a group of effeminate club boys. In between, we're treated to scenes that leaven brutal violence with touches of the sacred and beautiful including an impromptu foggy roach-spray ceremony for a murdered prostitute, and a rapturous five-minute dance of whirling abandon by Kumi that steals the film.
Throughout her weekend's adventure, Kumi is never a victim of anything more than ennui which she'll do anything to relieve. Despite having a gun, she gladly takes the beating doled out by the clubbers. Sex and violence are, for most everyone in Carnival in the Night, and most especially Kumi and Papou, a ward against boredom.
The weekend spent, Kumi returns the borrowed pistol, and changes back into her mommy attire as the films shifts back to color. She then retrieves her son, and so ends what is likely just another ordinary weekend in an extraordinary life.
Carnival in the Night was shot in 16MM using some color, but mostly grainy black-and-white film stock. The film probably never looked especially good, and Facets appears not to have gone to any extraordinary lengths to reverse the natural decline of the film stock. Nevertheless, the disc image is generally free from noise and artifacts attributable to analog or digital encoding, and looks fairly good considering what it is.
The removable English subtitles appear clear and accurate, and are appropriately sized, placed, and paced.
The disc preserves the original Japanese 1.0 mono audio track. Be aware that there is a great amount of camera noise in all interior scenes that sometimes competes with the actors' voices for aural dominance.
There are no extras on this disc. Additionally, because Facets did not provide a retail-packaged disc for this review, I do not know whether Facets accompanies this disc with an insert or booklet.
Carnival in the Night is the thirteenth release in Facets' Asian Edge line of Japanese cult films. All of the Asian Edge releases are obscure. Some have never been released on DVD before, others, including Carnival in the Night went into and out of print so quickly in Japan that the DVDs there go for $175 and up on the secondary market.
Facets is to be commended for bringing out another gem so obscure it is not, as of this writing, even listed on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb.com). Carnival in the Night is definitely not for most tastes. However, for fans of underground cinema it is highly recommended.