Morphing Past The Musical

Katsuhiro Ishii's Funky Forest

published in Film Comment Vol.42 No.6, New York 2006

A saving grace of contemporary Japanese cinema is that – like Godzilla retreating to the ocean depths – it is returning to an inscrutable state. Partially reviled recent films like Casshern, Izo (both 2004) Princess Raccoon (2005) and The Takeshis (2006) have materialised on the global cinematic stage like strangely contorted performances set to otherworldly music. Maybe they’re all musicals. Kitano’s Zatoichi (2004) pretends to be a chambara film, but it’s a matsuri trickster movie. In typical Japanese festival spirit, it adopts a grotesque mask – “I am the Blind Swordsman reborn” – only to refute that claim and join everyone on stage for a tap-dance finale, declaring – “We all are music”. This perverse cine-play is typical of Takashi and his Beckett-like stoicism inherited from manzai twin-comedian routines.

This circuitous introduction now drops us in a cinematic terrain where music, comedy and anime govern the atmosphere and breed unclassifiable plants. Let’s call it a film: Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005). You’ll want a description – but I’ll give you a mask. Let’s say it’s a disenchanted young guy drifting in a space pod, flipping channels and grazing the cut-up mediascape of manzai gags, routines, songs, tracks and dances which momentarily attract him.

Funky Forest is a thoroughly considered overview of ways in which music and musicality currently orient mediascapes in Japan, and how issues of imaginary head-space, tactile technological interaction and cathartic bodily projection are textually embedded in its films’ soundtracks. Loosely based around director Katsuhito Ishii’s idea of linking 100 gags directed in mash-up format by himself, Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, the film feels more like a million gags. Lasting nearly two and a half hours, it is deliberately exhausting and exhilarating: its bombast is concert-driven, not novel-bound; its twists and turns are like melodic flurries, not plot points.

Music technology and phonology glare on Funky Forest’s audiovisual surface. In the indie Nihon-slacker love story "Notti & Takefumi", Takefumi is the classic Shibuya groover with a ludicrously customised DJ mix console. The rig is built like a shrine in his lounge room, complete with a mega-volume control hidden in a ritual prayer box behind the console’s painting of a g-stringed crotch. Despite his spiritual alignment with the machine, he can’t do a basic cross-fade to save his life. This is one of many instances that openly mocks any sense of Japanese precision, dedication and communion with one’s surroundings, liming the film with savage cynicism which unsettles its modulated comical interludes.

Elsewhere, the film explodes with dazzling warmth. The extended "Takefumi’s Dream" is a complete head-fuck of dance, where Notti screams at him incessantly: “Show me your dancing!”. A neo-Butoh free-form punk dancer, two cute pre-pubescent girls in piped red PVC suits, a monstrous feminized machine in faux-juju animated form, and a troupe of dreadlocked punky-reggae highschoolers enacting bizarre routines, all belittle him into releasing himself through dance. When he finally does, it’s a disconcertingly tender moment, rendered all the more shocking because of its irrational effectiveness. When a nerd dances in The Day of The Singles Picnic, your emotions will be confounded.

These moments (the film has numerous) - I find impossibly transcendental – like all great musical moments hold for those predisposed to such modes of travel. Funky Forest is like a wonderfully fat dancer capable of the most hedonistic movements: its corpus of complexity defies any gravitational narrative pull, and instead it leaps from moment to moment in truly unexpected arcs of dance. The rich traditions of Japanese festivals (matsuri) populate Japanese cinema more than is accounted for by film criticism attempting to anthropologically interpret Japanese cinema not aligned to ‘cinema as we know it’. Funky Forest morphs itself as if the musical kept evolving past All That Jazz (1979) and Thriller (1983). And if those titles make you recoil from the dance floor, Funky Forest will blast you into a dimension where no one will ever demand you show them your dancing.

Text © Philip Brophy 2006. Images © Viz Pictures