Katsuhito Ishii is a youngish, exciting Japanese director whose extremely tripped-out series of films changed my life. His third feature, "The Taste of Tea" (2004), remains my favorite all-around film and switched up both the way I approach and interpret films in general but also the greater world as a whole. Big words, but of that later. I caught his first feature, the absurdly titled "Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl" (1999), on a whim, noting that it looked like a stylish Quentin Tarentino-esque Yakuza flick and it starred Tadanobu Asano as lead. Now, most non-Japanese who watch contemporary Japanese movies have seen Asano at least once: he's been in Takashi Miike's singularly violent "Ichi the Killer" (2001), in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's acclaimed "Bright Future" (2003), in Shinji Aoyama's emotive "Sad Vacation" (2007, which premiered here during the 2008 NY Asian Film Festival). Though he's starred in no mainstream J-Horror films, nor any Western films except the Genghis Khan adaptation "Mongol" (2007) — kinda. Don't know who I mean? You know, like from the Uniqlo t-shirt ads, he stars in 'em w/ Chloe Sevigny? In fact, it's beyond me that more non-Japanese, or at least more Westerners, don't know him. In vague terms he's Japan's Johnny Depp, an incredibly charismatic actor willing to take on the most eclectic, out-there roles w/out worrying what that will mean to his career. And, for those who've seen Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's surreally gorgeous "Last Life in the Universe" (2003) and sort-of follow-up, "Invisible Waves" (2006), will note Asano's command of English is more than impressive (and I would've thought him a match for Miike's Japanese-cast, English-language shoot-em-up "Sukiyaki Western Django" (2008) but that's just me).
But this is about Dir. Ishii, not Asano. So anyway, the film's proper title is "鮫肌男と桃尻女 (Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna)", which basically translates to "Sharkskin Man and Peachass Girl" — as in, a guy wearing a sharkskin suit, very Yakuza, and his round-assed moll. So to speak. It begins w/ a vibrant, hi-octane, MTV-ish animated credits roll (film geeks will note Ishii's role in the Lucy Liu animation sequence during Quentin Tarentino's "Kill Bill vol. 1"), w/ a bunch of cool cats like Asano showing off their guns and blowing smoke into the camera lens. I mean, have you SEEN this?? Then...what follows isn't your typical gangster film but a quirky, scattered, schizo, and in all respects TALKY film. There is a lot of talk, mindless idle chatter, weird convos, seemingly disconnected stuff that sometimes ties together toward the greater plot, other times veers onto tangents. And the plot moves nearly as quickly as the intro; though it's a bit rocky going for those expecting a by-the-book, mindless gangster flick, there are some nicely violent shoot-em-ups, and pay attention to Ishii's use of flashback. The cast incl. veteran tough-guy actor Susumu Terajima (whose been in most of Ishii's films, plus Takeshi Kitano's "Brother"), a bunch of guys you might recognize from other Japanese films (or "Kill Bill", Tarentino was very good about this), incl. Yoji Tanaka (the hard-working everyman, from "Ju-On" and like a million others) and Yoshiyuki Morishita (who's great about playing the sad case, what w/ his graveyard smile, he was the lecherous salaryman who gets gutted by Chiaki Kuriyama in "Kill Bill"), and absolute weirdo character auteur Tatsuya Gashuin. Many of the actors in "Sharkskin Man..." went on to star in Ishii's other films, like nearly all of them, part of the fun of watching ensemble films like "Taste of Tea" or the later "Funky Forest" (2006) is seeing them in action again. And one last thing: Ishii has a tendency to point the camera at the sky, pulling out an innocuous detail like sunlight through tree branches rather than the more pressing, obvious action on the ground. This is important: his awareness of the environment he's shooting in is instilled in us, the viewers.
I caught his 2nd film "Party 7" (2000) much later, as it used to be nearly impossible to find stateside. The cover art of a bikinied, gun-toting Akemi Kobayashi, and the even more coked up, bombastic anime opening sequence promises for a bigger, badder sequel to "Sharkskin Man...", but it's barely like that at all. There's a heist, there are recurring characters (incl. Asano in one of his slimiest, most unlikable roles, a prepped-out self-professed hentai, wearing a ridiculous knit dog sweater designed by Ishii himself), but the casual viewer will no doubt complain about the lack of action onscreen. Much of the film is set in two rooms and involves the small cast arguing and whining at hyper-speed about the most inane things. It may help to understand Japanese here, to cull out the subtleties of the dialogue, but it's not essential. Instead, take this as the most 'theatrical' of Ishii's four, as the limited setting and verbose dialogue really functions like a play — and it's to Ishii's credit as a writer (and for casting these particular actors) that the frenzied, hot-potato back-and-forth witticisms are particularly droll and keep the plot lively, even w/out much proper 'action'.
His third film, "茶の味 (Taste of Tea)", the extended-play family comedy-drama, set in the Tochigi countryside, is like drinking mild shroom tea. It's got its weird visuals, like the jumbo-sized double of an adorable, precocious Maya Banno, or the neon burst freakout during Satomi Tezuka's dream retelling (which sort of echoes the hyperspace sequence near the end of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"). But the majority of the 2.5 hr surreal voyage is all rounded corners and gently warmed good vibes. Everybody's got their quirks (incl. Asano as the sound-mixer uncle), but their eccentricities are eclipsed by their positive coolness. And Ishii's lens lovingly hangs on green fields and the budding cherry blossoms; the township in Tochigi Pref. where "Taste of Tea" is set gave the crew full access, and Ishii takes in the scenery rather luxuriously, unhurried by the film's pacing. This is another thing that got to me, both about the film and society in general: I'm an urban dweller, a city boy, never thought twice about living in the countryside...but there is something seductive in the framing of "Taste of Tea", of lingering in the sun-dappled landscape of Tochigi, following the 'slow life', something that never occurred to me before seeing this film. One strength of a good director is to transport you into their cinematic world and that is totally evident here. I also credit "Taste of Tea" for making me into a bit of a trainspotter, a J-film fanatic if you will. Ishii exerts prowess w/ an ensemble cast, as "Taste of Tea" has like 100 people starring in it, from big names (Asano, Terajima cameoing as a dead Yakuza, pop-starlet Anna Tsuchiya, Rinko Kikuchi — Western audiences will remember her as the deviant deaf girl in "Babel", youngish everyman Ryo Kase and more) to the odd bunch of non-actors and particulars to Ishii's oeuvre (incl. Ikki Todoroki, in a standout song-n-dance number w/ Gashuin, and Hideaki Anno — who anime freaks will note is the writer/director of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and that sort of stuff)...in fact I could quite easily make like a flowchart, J-IMDB-style, of the actors in this film and "Funky Forest" and how I know them from other Japanese films, or who star in Japanese films I've yet to see but really want to see. That will have to wait for another discussion.
Now, to further the psylocibin reference, watching "Funky Forest" in its entirety, all 2.5 psychedelic hrs of it, is akin to chewing up a bag of shrooms, combined with a tab of strong acid at the 1/2-way point. The full title, nihongo-de, is "ナイスの森:The First Contact (Naisu no Mori: The First Contact)", as in "Nice Forest", which is cute but this is one instance where I think the Westernized title actually works, as this is a very funky film. ishii teams up w/ Aniki (aka Hajime Ishimine) and Shunichiro Miki for an A/V smorgasbord that is best described as 2.5 hrs of loosely-related Japanese Youtube videos daisy-chained together. Or 'nonlinear', but that doesn't really have the same effect, does it? Aniki's segment is the touching romance b/w Ryo Kase and Erika Nishikado as is the most 'normal', though entirely visually/sonically pleasing. It wouldn't be out of place in a surreal American university-age romantic comedy, though the actors' extended dream sequences briskly jettison it to a whole 'nother category. Miki (who has several cameos in "Funky Forest"), on the other hand, directs the weirdest segments of the film, set in various rooms of a schoolhouse and mostly dealing w/ classmates' interactions w/ bizarro aliens. But even Miki has a range of weird, from the absurdly comedic 'homeroom' sketches (feat. Terajima as the hapless-yet-brazen teacher and Kikuchi as the militaristic class pres) to an extended music rehearsal bit where the sexual innuendoes of the alien 'instruments' are not exactly unsubtle. Ishii plays the middle ground, exercising his handle on witty screenwriting via the rapidfire exchanges of the 'Babbling Hotspring Vixens' and the situational comedy of the three 'No Luck W/ Women Brothers", the cultural-traditionalist Terajima, guitar-strumming Asano (choice lyric: 'the sea of space is my sea'), and the fat phonetic Japanese-speaking white kid you've probably seen on the "Funky Forest" poster. Basically the weirdest (Miki-directed) occur after the 3 minute intermission, so if you've any psychedelics handy that's when you'll need 'em, or at least brace yourself b/c the ride isn't over just yet.
And it's here where I lay my wishes on the line: the 2010 NYAFF approaches, w/ preliminary news already floating about the blogosphere. I'm pumped. I want Ishii this year, his films that haven't screened here and YES the director himself. What we've got out there: the gorgeous and gentle "山のあなた (My Darling of the Mountains)" (2008), which is on Japanese DVD now (the proper Japanese title works way better here, though it's a bit tough to translate into English, sort of like "your mountain" but w/ a close, feminine connotation to the 'your' possessive), and the sugary-cute college-hostel-dance-a-thon "Sorasoi" (2008), which premiered at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. In an ideal world, we'd have both those + a special screening of "Ichigo Seminar", which I get is a web-serial drama, but how dope to see it on the big screen?? And for those of you unknowledgeable to the ways of this incredible director, equally comfortable in the realm of hi-octane Tarentino direction and in the subdued tones of observational comedy, check this lovely Twitch link.