If eroticism resides most in the mind or spirit rather than the body, then A Snake of June may well be the most erotic film ever made. Like all the best movies of its kind, it is not about sex per se, but about its power and influence. Sometimes that power is destructive (In the Realm of the Senses), and there are who knows how many bad erotic thrillers about people destroyed because their libidos overpower their common sense. Snake works the other way around, showing how someone’s libido can return to them a sense of personal identity long suppressed. That not only makes it all the more erotic, but all the more interesting and compelling.
Snake’s director is Shinya Tsukamoto, one of Japan’s best and most idiosyncratic directors (and actors). He first came to attention worldwide with Tetsuo: the Iron Man, a bizarre and jolting 65-minute stop-motion odyssey about an ordinary salaryman mutating into a walking junkheap. After several low-budget but arresting-looking ventures into the same SF territory, he began to branch out and discover what he was really capable of, and made films that were about the transformation of the spirit as well as the body (Tokyo Fist, Gemini). A Snake of June has the look and feel of his first independent 16mm productions, but in its theme and approach it’s clearly the product of someone at the absolute top of his form.
Most of Tsukamoto’s films deal with two men in competition over a woman. Snake is somewhat in the same vein, but this time the nature of the competition is different. The story concerns a couple, the slender and boyish Rinko (Ashika Kurosawa) and the rotund and cheerful Shigehiko (Yuji Kotari). The two are so mismatched that it takes a few scenes before we realize they’re married and not simply cousins or something along those lines. They’re both “intellectual”—cool, a bit smug, a bit detached, and they live in a neatnik apartment that’s as modern and aseptic as they are. Rinko works in a psychiatric-help call center, Shigehiko has a desk job, and while they are amiable, they are not passionate—and given what we learn later about them, they really should be.
This stasis is disrupted by the presence of a third, a porno photographer (Tsukamoto himself, who stars in many of his own films). He forms a connection with Rinko almost by accident: he calls her one day on the help line, confesses a death wish to her, and when she is able to help him in earnest, he becomes determined to help her right back. That’s when packets of photos start showing up at Rinko’s doorstep, all showing her engaging in surreptitious sexual activities. Rinko is shocked—as shocked as she would be at seeing a total stranger doing those things, because to a degree, that is a total stranger: her sex life and “real” life have been so compartmentalized, so schizoid, that to be confronted with third-party evidence of it is unsettling.
What comes next is a development that in the hands of any other director, I fear, would have become complete pandering, but Tsukamoto makes it work. The photographer mails her a cellphone and gives her instructions on how to act out one of the sexual fantasies she’d been entertaining in private. If she doesn’t do this, the pictures go to her husband. The whole sequence is shot in very tight close-ups of Rinko’s face, sweat pouring off her body; it’s infinitely more powerful than any number of other movies showing gyrating bodies because the real excitement is inside her head. And by extension, inside ours. A second sequence later in the film has even more power, with Rinko tearing her clothes off and masturbating in a torrential downpour (the movie is saturated with early summer rain, in itself an erotic device).
Some people have wondered how useful the blackmail in this movie would be. Most husbands are not exactly ashamed to learn that their wives masturbate. But the way I see it, this carries weight as a threat for her because both of them are so sexually confined that to have it all burst out in the open would rip them apart. Or would it? All of this goes hand-in-hand with another revelation about Rinko and the photographer (which I won’t mention here), another connection that goes deeper than a random latching-on of lust. It’s not something I was expecting in the slightest, and it moves the relationship between the three of them to another level—one of, literally, life and death, where personal identity is not simply a badge one wears to impress others but is the very substance of one’s existence. It’s so rare to see a movie take so many shameless risks with its ideas and material and make them all work.
I have read reviews of the film that describe it as a failed erotic thriller, where the potential of the first half of the movie gets lost along the way. The same criticism was levied at Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet, and I think for many of the same reasons: people’s expectations about where the material was supposed to head, or what discoveries it was supposed to make, were confounded. This has gone hand in hand with attacks on the director’s ideas, or lack thereof: I don’t think Tsukamoto is putting forward anything nearly as facile as the mere idea that the instincts are superior to the intellect. I think what he is saying, and which I agree with completely, is that intellect without the power of instinctual drives is dry and unproductive, and instinct without intellect is random and aimless. Human life is designed to have room for both, and to deny either of them is cruelty. When harnessed together, they can take us places we would never imagine going.
Tsukamoto gives his movies a very distinct feel, which is a way of saying nobody else makes movies that look remotely like his. He uses a lot of hand-held camerawork, a lot of tight, intimate shots, and likes to move violently between the softness (read: vulnerability, or maybe malleability) of the human body and the jagged asepsis of its industrialized surroundings. He also deviates into gothic, baroque visual fantasies at a couple of strategic moments in the film, as when Shigehiko has a nightmare about being drowned with his wife in a giant glass tank. (Another nightmare sequence plays like homage to Tetsuo, where the photographer unveils a giant biomechanical umbilicus that chokes the other man.) Snake uses blue-tinted black-and-white photography, not color, to makes it feel less like porn or exploitation and more like a dreamscape. With Snake, in the course of only about 75 minutes, Tsukamoto says more about sex and identity than many directors do in the whole of their career. He was a world-class artist before this, but now, he’s doubly in that number.
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