Tadanobu Asano is an actor I will gladly see in most any movie, even ones where his brooding charisma can’t redeem the rest of the project. Asano has been compared favorably to a Japanese version of Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, and like both of those actors he can make a serious misfire of a film into something marginally endurable. I stuck it out through Dead End Run because of both him and another actor I have the same sort of affection for (Masatoshi Nagase), and I sat through Neji-shiki for the same reasons. Even with him, what we have here is a curiosity whose appeal to anyone outside of its cult audience is probably going to fall flat on its face.
The cultishness surrounding Neji-shiki comes from the fact that it’s an adaptation of a short manga by Tsuge Yoshiharu, a man whose impact on comics inside and outside of Japan is deep but not broadly known. Yoshiharu had a turbulent life, to put it mildly, and that turbulence was channeled back into his work. According to Peter Van Huffel’s MangaGuide, he was raised by his mother after his father ran disappeared, and when he was fourteen he tried stowing away on a cargo ship for the United States but was caught and brought back. His first forays into manga were dedicated products for rental libraries (places where people pay by the hour to browse)—something like the comics equivalent of the direct-to-video movie market, and about as much of a ghetto for a talented man. When that market dried up in the Sixties, he plummeted into poverty, sold blood to put food on the table, and eventually attempted suicide. But he survived, and in 1965 went to work for the underground/avant-garde comic magazine Garo, home to other luminaries such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Sanpei Shirato and guro master Suehiro Maruo (whose Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show has also been adapted into a film that apparently didn’t get much of a release).
Neji-shiki was one of many works Yoshiharu produced during his time at Garo, and one which blends all three of his creative streams: stories about his journeys across Japan; autobiographical work; and his personal nightmares. It’s a loose travelogue of his time spend down and out in other people’s bedrooms, but it slowly devolves into surrealism, and doesn’t so much end as it simply terminates. What’s most surprising is how the movie is mercilessly true to the original story, which only serves as proof that some things simply don’t translate all that well to the screen. Dogura Magura suffered from the same problem: a faithful adaptation is not always a good one, or a coherent one.
What made the film an even more automatic cult item was its director: Teruo Ishii, he who essentially invented the Japanese exploitation film as we’ve come to know it. Most of what he’s remembered for are his horror/torture/gore-fests like The Joys of Torture, and the long-running Abashiri Prison gangster movies. His more recent productions, like his embarrassingly bad (and borderline offensive) quasi-remake of Jigoku, haven’t achieved anywhere the same level of notoriety or attention; Neji-shiki was made right before Jigoku, and the fact that it’s markedly better than its successor still doesn’t redeem it all that much.
For the most part, Ishii keeps his excesses in check; most of the film is a straightforward, grimly-portrayed drama about the Asano character’s downward spiral. Like his real-life counterpart, he is a cartoonist with no money and no prospects of any. His girlfriend is a married woman who mostly keeps him around for the thrill of knowing she’s sleeping around on the side, and she entertains a bevy of other men right in front of him. Disgusted by her behavior—and probably also by his own inability to assert himself—he wanders off to the countryside to try and forget about her, and maybe to drink himself into oblivion. He doesn’t like drinking, but alcoholism seems like a better choice than the stupefied lucidity he feels now.
The countryside is not much better. He meets a young girl there, a bar hostess, who unsuccessfully tries to arouse his interest in her. Maybe she really was interested in me, he thinks, and maybe I turned down a good thing. That night he sees her enduring a molestation at the hands of a couple of drunken louts for the sake of a pair of shoes, and is disgusted once more. He wanders again, each successive encounter with a woman becoming all the more fevered and unpleasant, until a mishap with a jellyfish at the ocean drops him into a surreal realm vaguely reminiscent of Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral: To Die in the Country, from which neither he nor the film ever emerges.
It’s in the latter half of the story that Ishii really cuts loose with his trademark luridness—fierce red lighting, Dutch angles, wild zooms—but the whole of the movie from start to finish is suffused in a kind of suffocating amber haze. It’s supposed to be dreamy, but it comes off as merely crude, and a great many of the movie’s other technical aspects (the post-dubbing, the extremely primitive visual effects, etc.) make it feel all the more squalid, and not in a good way.
The oddest thing about Neji-shiki is that I can’t say the filmmakers failed to accomplish what they set out to do: they adapted the exact story that was in the comic to film. What they haven’t done, though, is give anyone who hasn’t read the comic and isn’t madly in love with the idea of seeing it as a movie any reason to follow along. There is Tadanobu Asano, and he does what he can with his character and with the material, but in the end he’s at the mercy of a movie that’s less interesting than he is.