Bright Lights Film Journal

Blue Movie: Rediscovering the Spark in Shinya Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June

“An incessant downpour dominates every exterior scene, and even some interior ones through sound. Water becomes a central motif, from Rinko relaxing contemplatively in the bath to Shigehiko watching people drown in the tank.”

In a number of ways, Shinya Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June (Rokugatsu no hebi, 2002) sees the Japanese auteur going back to basics. Throughout the 1990s, Tsukamoto had gradually shifted away from the techno-surrealist nightmare that was his breakthrough mini-feature, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) with work that was more grounded, more mature. This evolution arguably reached its zenith with Gemini (Sôseiji, 1999), a sumptuous and altogether accomplished kaidan-eiga based on the writings of horror writer Edogawa Ranpo. It was a departure for Tsukamoto, perhaps not thematically but certainly from a technical standpoint. The film was made for Sedic International, giving Tsukamoto a larger budget, larger cast and larger crew than he was accustomed to working with. The period-setting of the story also meant that the director had to skulk out from the looming shadows of Tokyo, a visual staple of all his films up until that point bar one – sophomore effort Hiruko the Goblin (Yôkai hantâ: Hiruko, 1991), also a Sedic production.

But in A Snake of June, made after Gemini, Tokyo returns with a vengeance. Cast in oppressive, blue-tinted monochrome, the city has never appeared more vivid or dehumanising, to the point where it becomes barely recognisable; stacked officious monoliths, crooked alleyways, and industrial conurbations with no real identity of their own. Living in this Ballardian megalopolis is Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), a counsellor for a hospital call centre. The irony is that while she deals with the emotional problems of total strangers on a daily basis, she is unable to deal with her own sterile marriage to Shigehiko (writer Yûji Kôtari), a shapeless, balding salary-man who is more interested in keeping their apartment immaculately clean than tending to the needs of his wife. Rarely do they make physical contact, preferring to place themselves at opposite ends of the room and rarely do they sleep together in the same bed, with Shigehiko preferring to sleep out in a chair.

This continued repression sees Rinko surrender to the occasional sexual whim: masturbating when Shigehiko is at work and sometimes trying on kinky outfits in the privacy of her own home. This changes when an envelope full of photos catching her in the act arrives one morning. The voyeur is a terminal cancer sufferer named Iguchi (played by Tsukamoto), a former patron of Rinko’s call centre where she had previously convinced him not to commit suicide. Seeing that Rinko had effectively saved his life, Iguchi has decided to repay the favour by helping Rinko fulfill her nascent carnality through blackmail. “I’m telling you to do what you want,” he says over the phone before making Rinko perform a variety of sexually humiliating acts in public: walking through a shopping mall whilst wearing an incredibly short skirt (sans underwear), purchasing a vibrator and leaving the remote so Iguchi can activate it at his (and her) leisure. Rinko acquiesces in the hope that she will be able to get the photo negatives and keep the whole episode a secret from her husband. However, Iguchi also has plans for Shigehiko, resulting in him waking up in a room where two young people are forced to copulate in front of an audience of restrained businessmen. The businessmen are tied up and have metal funnels placed over their faces, with only a small peephole to look through. After the sex, the couple are dumped in a large water tank with no means of escape. An usher makes her way around the audience, switching the cones to a wider aperture so as to get a better, yet still restricted look at the ensuing drowning.

It is these moments of surreal, techno-corporality that help align A Snake of June with Tsukamoto’s early film work. This is understandable, considering that the narrative and themes of this film had been brewing in the mind of its creator for several years. According to Tsukamoto, quoted in Masahiro Muramatsu’s 2003 documentary Basic Tsukamoto, these thoughts would creep into life during the Japanese rainy season each summer, but the inclination to act on them would dissipate by its end. It was perhaps the start of a new century that convinced Tsukamoto to finally commit to his long-standing desire to make a full-fledged erotic film. But eros is by no means unfamiliar to Tsukamoto, as evidenced by Tetsuo, a film as much about sexual perversity coming to the surface as it is about iron and scrap metal erupting from its protagonist.

While it is sometimes overlooked, romantic and sexual relationships have always played a strong part in Tsukamoto’s cinema. Usually, their stability is challenged by an external force coming between them: the “metal-fetishist” in Tetsuo and the skinhead cult in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992); Tsuda’s childhood friend in Tokyo Fist (Tokyo ken, 1995) and Yukio’s twin brother in Gemini. But where past films have seen their central relationship either destroyed or damaged beyond repair, A Snake of June takes a different course. This is a story in many ways about creation, not destruction: rehumanisation as opposed to dehumanisation, with life flourishing in places once thought to be dead.

This is reinforced in numerous visuals, most notably the incessant downpour that dominates every exterior scene, and even some interior ones through sound. Water becomes a central motif, from Rinko relaxing contemplatively in the bath to Shigehiko watching people drown in the tank. There is also a fixation on the byproducts of rain; the plant and animal life it nourishes. A large snail perched on a leaf is a recurring symbol, the circular shape of its shell providing further, interlinked opposites: concrete versus nature, square versus round. The straight edges of the city and Rinko’s apartment conflict with the curvature of the aforementioned shell, the bathroom skylight in which Rinko gazes out of as she soaks, and the lens of Iguchi’s camera.

Iguchi, the “external force” in this case, can be seen as a guardian angel or even a cupid-like figure, ushering an estranged marriage into a new age of passion and understanding. He is, admittedly, an unusual manifestation of such an archetype, bringing the innermost desires of his charges to the surface. During a climatic photo-shoot where a very horny Rinko poses in the rain, Iguchi’s ferocious flash-bulb whips across her nakedness over and over again in a torrent of sexual ecstasy. Edited with the similar rhythm of a more traditional love scene, it is a moment where they both derive a strange sense of post-coital satisfaction. Even the sexually moribund Shigehiko, who has been following his wife throughout this secret excursion, is inspired to reach inside his trousers and reacquaint himself with the lost art of self-pleasure.

Things become more complex, though, when Iguchi’s own desires are brought into the mix. He is worried when – through his photography – he realises that Rinko may have breast cancer, and he can’t help but get involved on a more personal level. Believing that her decision to not have surgery is because of Shigehiko, Iguchi beats the husband within an inch of his life, with the help of a pair of steel-cap boots and an oily, snakelike, metal phallus that leers and dances out from his cancerous stomach. It is the only real act of violence in a film that’s purposefully light on physical contact, which is a rarity for Tsukamoto, who would continue with this exploration of the “pure” body with his next film, Vital (2004). In essence, A Snake of June reveals that the director is finally starting to feel comfortable with the flesh, no longer needing to disguise it with metal, bruises, or dirt.