You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Jeremy Elphick looks at the deranged and delightful feature Katsuhito Ishii directed alongside Hajimine Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki: Funky Forest.
Katsuhito Ishii’s mark on the landscape of modern Japanese Weird Cinema is fairly unparalleled. Ishii exists as a filmmaker that has pushed conscious boundaries into a world of cogent nonsense, defining a movement within Japanese cinema before pushing it to its teleological conclusion. While Ishii’s output is extensive, he’s become most well known for three films in particular. The first two are indicators of the filmmaker in a relatively embryonic – yet highly stylised – form. Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is both a solid film on its own accord and a blueprint of what was to come, while The Taste of Tea is a remarkably sincere and strange mediation on themes and ideas more in line with Bergman than Japanese New Weird. Considering this, Funky Forest serves as the pinnacle of Ishii’s output – alluring and inaccessible; depending on who you ask. It’s not the easiest film to penetrate, however – in the right mindset – Ishii’s masterpiece is unmatched.
Funky Forest isn’t a linear film by any measure. It’s a film of sketches, dreams, imaginative dribbles and often sudden and unexpected moments of stark criticism. In one of his lesser achievements, Akira Kurosawa released Dreams, a film that gave the viewer exactly what the title indicated: a series of dreams that Akira Kurosawa had and decided were worth recreating for cinema. Despite the filmmaker’s best intentions, Dreams was plagued by long, drawn-out segments that let down the film due to a fairly unsolvable issue. That is, Kurosawa wasn’t having the most coherent, interesting or alluring dreams. While it was likely a personal and reflective process for the director, the film leaves the audience wanting more – and where Kurosawa’s imagination falls short, Ishii’s leaps into the distance. Sometimes, the scale in which he articulates his visions and landscapes is angular, slow or alienating in its strangeness, however, if this weirdness is embraced from its commencement, Funky Forest paints one of the most fascinating and consuming worlds film has to offer.
The cinematic movement that embodies Funky Forest has never really found itself articulated in an all-encompassing way. Instead, there is a thematic trend of absurdity, social criticism expressed through surreality, and an ever-present political undercurrent that finds itself more comfortable the more subtly it can be expressed. With that said, some context probably helps in approaching a film that appears as incoherent, structureless and angular as Funky Forest does. Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Family Game came out in 1982 – as a film it followed in the trend of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida and Hiroshi Teshigahara (or the Japanese New Wave) in aggressively challenging the status quo of Japan’s social structure. Despite striking the same chords, Morita’s instrument was the use of sleek satire with an often brutal undercurrent of social criticism. The Family Game builds on Japanese New Wave cinema by presenting itself as a work adhering to the structures and approaches to film held by those that came before it, before inverting and dismantling them in a process of trying to do the same to the aforementioned cinematic sphere on the whole. After playing the father in The Family Game, Juzo Itami went on to direct Tampopo, probably the largest export from the Japanese Weird scene. With the ’80s being the birth of a solid movement of Japanese Weird Cinema, the more recent point this essay will focus on is more aptly Japanese New Weird – something Itami never lived to see. Gen Sekuchi’s Survival Style 5+ (2004), Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005), Yosuke Fujita’s Fine, Totally Fine (2008), Ishii’s earlier The Taste of Tea (2004), and Fumihiko Sori’s Pingu-Pongu (2002) thread together a fairly strong idea of what Japanese New Weird cinema looks like. In Funky Forest, Ishii drives into its core.
The opening of the film is indicative of nothing beyond a single theme. An elaborate musical number performed by ‘the Mole Brothers’, two characters dressed in all white, towing the aesthetic line of the futuristic realm they inhabit. The scene quickly drifts towards cosmic and the molecular levels at the time; a paradox that encompasses the film. Ishii’s film is obsessed with science fiction with his constant presentation of confusing organisms, fields of stars, and eccentric aliens a regular trope throughout. Stark contrasts between reality and fantasy are never present throughout. Instead, Ishii blurs that region and these initially irreconcilable themes and ideas begin to sit hand in hand. Understanding and coming to terms with Funky Forest largely rests on the viewer’s ability to accept this blurring, to reject a binary approach of reality and fantasy, and to embrace the unique articulation of the interplay between the two that Ishii weaves throughout his two-and-a-half-hour epic. On another level, Funky Forest possesses a more literal framing of the film as a genuine search for meaning in an incomprehensibly complex universe; each of its characters yearning for something more, only receiving an increasingly complex, confusing and imaginative universe the deeper they find themselves. Ishii’s work is a film of collapse. Where microscopic and more meta-levels of the atmosphere intersect, so do genres, ideas and intended audiences.
At moments, Funky Forest articulates itself as a fun-filled tale, easily enjoyable to – and perhaps, inextricably linked to – the mind of youth. At other times, it explicitly directs itself at the adult mind, with an underlying assumption that its target has rejected this youthful sense of imagination and playfulness – to its loss. One of the recurring segments of the work – Guitar Brother – is a cutting look at the idea of ‘the bachelor’ in Japan as existing in a teleology towards kinship and a sort of platonic stalemate; realised in one of the section’s concluding segments – The Singles’ Picnic. As the guitarist brother resolutely sings “the sea of space / is my sea / my unabandoned yearning”, Ishii doesn’t present him as anything besides exhausted and uninspired – desperately trying to adhere to a discourse and view of romance that Ishii’s film looks at as bygone within Japan. In a particular scene where the young child is arguing with the older brother (the guitarist) about “thinking like a girl”, the stark inability of either to escape a perspective sorely lacking in any real empathy makes a palpable statement into the idea of being single in Japan. The loneliness is coupled with apathy and inexperience; something that permeates all of the characters in Ishii’s cinematic landscape, no matter their circumstances.
For instance in ‘Notti & Takefumi’ – a segment which focuses on a couple that has a peculiar (yet far from dysfunctional) relationship, standing as one of Ishii’s more grounding tales throughout the film – navigates this same insecurity and disconnection. The balance between unrestrained abstract weird and more straightforward expression is Funky Forest’s greatest achievement as a work and it never finds itself more present than in the scenes with Notti and Takefumi at their centre. For every scene within the cosmos and people drinking out of the teats of a strange aliens, there’s a group of retirees arguing at an onsen, or this aforementioned couple discussing whether or not they’re “in a relationship”. The calm mediation between the magical and the mundane is the dictum that informs the film and Ishii’s ability to articulate this with such ease gives his work the surreal strength that permeates its duration. Like most absurdist works, the success often comes down to a variety of key factors. Obviously the originality and interest of the material being presented is deeply important to a credible piece of cinema in such a genre, but this can descend into an incoherent mess without the right director in charge. Ishii’s film sits in a teleology of filmic absurdism pioneered and explored by earlier filmmakers such as Dusan Makavejev, Leos Carax and Alejandro Jodorowsky. As with all of the aforementioned directors too, Ishii brings his own mark to the genre, and in the case of Funky Forest this is in the breadth of his thematic concerns – and the director’s ability to reconcile the most mundane with the most deeply imaginative scenes with ease.
The film’s conventionally strangest side emerges in a series filmed within a high school as a group of aliens and slimy objects with human faces are ‘milked’ in a series of both desexualised (yet entendre-laden) scenes. Again, Ishii patiently negotiates a ceasefire between paradigmatically opposed concepts (with entendre and desexualisation replacing the dream vs. reality opposition in these sections). This blurring continues to permeate the film. It doesn’t depart and apply itself to a few of the scenes, but is present throughout. That is, it’s a perfect example of cogency that Ishii brings to the various vignettes he presents throughout the film. The aesthetic clarity in the vision in a lot of the school scenes have circled the internet in GIF format for years, due to how completely aesthetically over-the-top they are in their weirdness. In the film, with full context, they’re still without competition the most alienating section. As a man with neatly waxed hair drives his arm into an oversized anus (while being held by a giant yellow furry creature) pulling out an incredibly tiny man wearing a headband and little else, the scene can seem a bit alienating. A lot of the furore over Funky Forest has emerged from attempts to analyse and understand a lot of these scenes; a frustration at the lack of an overt meaning within them – rather than an acceptance and embrace of the free-roaming imaginative nonsense that encircles so many scenes of the movie. Funky Forest doesn’t approach criticism with linearity, instead it wears absurdism as an aesthetic exercise and challenges cinematic convention with subtleties. It’s strange, it’s odd, but it’s also relentlessly funny – and in its nonsense is its most straightforward satire; simply making fun of the obsession and presentation of the weird within Japan (as well as how that weirdness is played up and accepted by foreign audiences). It exaggerates, it embraces and it embezzles itself with this sense of incoherent weirdness – jammed in between tales of yearning, frustration and squabbling, as well as those of desperate inaction.
Throughout Funky Forest, music is never far from the scene, with the film’s soundtrack delivering a consistently apt companion to the visual side of the movie. From Little Tempo, a Japanese dub-reggae band, string-heavy theme music, muted brass, to percussive and more noisy electronics – Ishii’s film is framed by a broad collage of sounds that sit parallel to the themes and emotions he explores throughout the rest of the film. Funky Forest draws from a variety of musical spheres that sit in a comfortable parallel to those that the film deals with, again adding to the overall coherency of the work. It’s not a huge feature on its own, but taking note of Ishii’s attention to detail feels essential in looking at how the director has controlled and harnessed the vast absurdism that defines his work. Describing the soundtrack in any more length feels unnecessary, however, for those who don’t often take notice of the score when watching a film, Funky Forest is a good place to start making exceptions to the rule.
Funky Forest could easily be a film about the mundane with a bit of weirdness sprinkled around the film, and wouldn’t be too far from the typical format of a handful of vignettes dealing with ‘ordinary people’ and their day-to-day experiences. At first, the embrace of the supernatural by Ishii isn’t too far beyond what many of his contemporaries – especially in larger budget studio works – were already doing. The film comes together in the director’s ability to collapse the two into something intricate, ever-evolving and more simply: beautiful. In particular, there are a series of scenes throughout Funky Forest where the mundane and the supernatural interact in a surreal, detached and seemingly transcendent space that shows little regard for time and space. Taking the physical form of a beach, Takefumi stands in front of a giant subwoofer being powered by the generator of a car. His dreams are complex, weird and theatrical. Each uses the same space of the beach, the same environment, yet each remains fundamentally distinct from the other. In some scenes, Notti is controlling an army of children, in others Takefumi is dancing with an animated demon of sorts. There’s an indescribable beauty to the dream scenes, something that a filmmaker as technically gifted as Kurosawa failed to capture in his own work on the topics, and something that builds on the cinematic argument against the need for a central narrative advanced throughout Funky Forest. In one of the final scenes, ‘Notti’s Dream’ (an inversion of Takefumi’s earlier visions), the same beauty is palpable as Ishii places one of his most seemingly mundane characters in one of his most sublime environments. There isn’t an imperative for an objective aesthetic beauty in these scenes, and the way in which Funky Forest is edited denies any linear build-up towards them. Instead, they drift in and out of a film comprised of neatly arranged snapshots. In concluding his film in one of the most primordial expressions of creativity and emotion – a dance performed by Notti and Takefumi, Ishii leaves the viewer with an exercise in observation.
A lot of Katsuhito Ishii’s points of criticism are not too dissimilar from the significantly more popular Sion Sono. From fanaticism, the idea of social conditioning, romance and love in Japan, they are both filmmakers who draw critiques of both their own society and the filmmaking community they inhabit – both within the New Weird context. That said, while Sono’s films soften the edges and bring a lot of these ideas to a wider audience, Katsuhito Ishii roughens them up and takes them to their zenith. As testicles being flicked in a completely desexualised and distancing fashion, and an alien is attached to a woman’s armpit in a lightly veiled mocking of Japan’s fetish culture – something that recurs throughout a lot of the weirder sections of the film – Ishii reaffirms himself as an uncompromising trailblazer of the New Weird movement his output has come to define. Funky Forest articulates a landscape of surrealism, imagination and breadth as skilfully, thoroughly and coherently as any major absurdist work in any form. It plays by certain tenets of the genre, redefines others, and challenges others. Ishii’s film is confronting, beautiful, and political and is one of the rare films that seem to offer even more to the viewer when watched in the period of time between late night and early morning – if this essay can add anything beyond “You Have to See… Funky Forest”, it’s that.
Virat Nehru: Before I delve into this quite unique film, I’ll admit that I’m not that acquainted with contemporary Japanese cinema, so Jeremy’s essay and his thoughts on the ‘New Wave’ of Japanese film-making was both an education and a guidance tool for me to approach this feature. I’ll try and move away from the staple narrative driven liberal arts analysis of “what this film is about” because I don’t think approaching it from a conventional plot-cum-narrative arc perspective is the right way of looking at this piece of cinema. I truly feel we’ve been thoroughly spoilt by the excessive inundation of the rather mechanical plot/character driven utilisation of the cinematic medium and we as audiences, have come to expect such mechanics from at least mainstream films, if not other kinds of cinema. This is quite troubling, because we’re essentially consuming a very conservative type of utilisation of the film medium. One of my favourite filmmakers Ingmar Berman believed that the film medium was not really about narrative or story but more about creating a visceral experience. Susan Sontag has argued extensively in favour of interpreting cinema viscerally as well.
So, it was really refreshing not to go in expecting a ‘narrative arc’ as such. Because honestly, I can’t really tell you what this film was about. Now, some people might see this as a negative thing, because we’ve become conditioned to only see the cinematic medium in a certain kind of way. Without being disingenuous, this film was truly visceral and surreal in equal doses. I kind of gave in to the mood of the film somewhere around the one hour mark, finally stopped trying to decipher what this latest ‘dream’ meant and where and how it fit into the narrative structure. Once I did that, I enjoyed the film a lot more and realised I was approaching the film in the wrong manner. Hence, I went back to the beginning and started watching it again and the second time around, I enjoyed it a lot more – once I could commit to the vibe of the film. One of my favourite aspects was that the surreal was not reduced to a plot device here. It was part of the natural fabric of the film itself. I can confidently say that this film is surreal, rather than ‘this film has surreal elements’. That’s one of the main reasons why I found it to be different (and slightly better) than say A Scanner Darkly, which uses surrealism but reduces it to a narrative device. Overall, now that I know what to expect, I’m inclined to see it again!
Dominic Barlow: I make absolutely no claim to know about Japanese Weird Cinema, but it was about five minutes into Funky Forest that I knew how to make sense of the movie. Seeing those seconds-long moments between segments, spaced apart with cuts to black, immediately called to mind the many YouTube TV show compilations and recuts I’ve trawled through in my procrastination time, often in those same wee hours Jeremy recommends. They remind me of the identically-edited promos for Saturday Night Live, where several takes are thrown together to get a handful of comedic ideas across in a mere minute or two. The brand of humour is much further out of left field, though, like something you’d catch randomly on Adult Swim, complete with a Cronenbergian taste for weird carnal imagery. There’s also insanely good production values, with techniques like green-screen trickery, prosthetics, animatronics, CGI and traditional animation to be found across the two-and-a-half hour runtime, not to mention some amazingly game acting talent to complement them.
I suspect I won’t be alone in comparisons like that, and hence Funky Forest‘s mash-up of disparate scenarios, from intergalactic to domestic, is way more accessible than one might think. It’s easy to view in smaller amounts at a time, and despite reprising characters and locations, none of the situations are much more complicated in their strangeness than they appear. I love that Jeremy’s picked this for You Have to See because it gives a group of people the chance to highlight the moments that stuck out most for them, which is probably the best way to engage with the film as a whole (me personally? I laughed for longer at the Home Room scenes than I have at anything for a while). I’d totally recommend it to anyone needing something both strange and strangely familiar for their early-morning viewing.
Jamie Rusiti: Like a dissonant hybrid between a Cronenberg body-horror and a Japanese game show, Funky Forest takes place in an abject world that feels foreign, disjointed and at times confronting, and yet still provides us with a lingering sense of familiarity and universal resonance; the harmony of our chaotic human experience. As Jeremy notes, Ishii’s dreamscape operates in the same weird aesthetic realm as films like Survive Style 5+ and The Family Game, however, it does so without the more linear ties to reality both films stand by. Scenes are juxtaposed together like segments from a sketch show, linked by familiar characters and devices, but otherwise seemingly disparate. While initially alienating, this structure ultimately provides the perfect framework for examining the weirdness and nonsense of normality, as you may only get lost in the film when you relinquish the desire for interpretation or a need for causality.
As Dominic said, Ishii’s structure encourages you to foremost remember your favourite moments, which for me was the relationship between Notti & Takefumi, who stumble through a bildungsroman about the honest complexities of youthful romance. Their domestic ennui culminates into a dream sequence where Takefumi performs in a DDR-cum-talent show series of dance-offs alongside companions ranging from a disembodied head to a gargantuan anime robot, learning to express himself and gaining Notti’s affections. At times it can be hard to maintain concentration throughout the smorgasbord of weird and nonsensical setpieces, but in over 2.5 hours, Ishii provides us with an intermission, and it’s certainly not hard to have a break and return to this dream world later on.