Swallowtail Butterfly

Original title
Japanese title
  • スワロウテイル
Running time
148 minutes
29 June 2014
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Shunji Iwai’s Swallowtail Butterfly opens on old-timey newsreel footage of Japan’s industrial landscapes, accompanied by roving titles read aloud by the film’s protagonist, the teenaged girl Ageha (Ayumi Ito). Outlining an alternative history in which the yen’s unparalleled economic power draws an influx of immigrants, she tells us of Yen Town, the shanty communities of outsiders that have formed around Japan’s urban centers, so nicknamed by the xenophobic Japanese. A play on words, yen town is a homonym of yen taun, whose alternative kanji spelling translates to "Yen Thieves." This linguistic distinction – kept subtle in the film and left unexplained for non-Japanese viewers – illustrates the thematic stakes presented in the film: the opposing perspectives of viewing foreigners merely as unwelcome interlopers within Japanese society or as heralds of a permanent shift toward multiculturalism.

Arguably better-known for his sentimental works like Love Letter (1995) and Hanna and Alice (2004) or the brooding coming-of-age drama All About Lily Chou Chou (2001), Iwai here presents a deeply imperfect, but nevertheless ambitious and stylish work that warrants attention. More than 15 years now after its initial release, Swallowtail has dated in many ways, but anyone familiar with late-90s Japanese cinema will recognize the palpable influence of this noteworthy film. As the story begins, an unidentified Chinese immigrant (implied to be a prostitute) is found dead and her is body processed unsympathetically by racist Japanese officers. The woman’s peers raid her cache of valuables and oust her daughter from their enclave. Taken in by the prostitute Glico (the pop singer Chara), the girl is given the name Ageha (the Japanese name for the swallowtail butterfly) and is adopted by a close-knit band of illegal immigrants who commit petty crimes and scavenge through landfills for useful items to eke out a living. Thus begins an expansive tale of immigrants and cultural outcasts that is intensely critical of Japanese institutions and favors the nondescript, hybrid identities produced by global human mobility.

Ageha proves to be a quick study and gradually takes on bigger responsibilities among her surrogate family, which includes Ran (Atsuro Watabe), a mercenary under the employ of Americans, and Fei-Hong (Hiroshi Mikami), an unscrupulous conman who is also Glico’s lover. In the midst of a wide ensemble of characters, Ageha stands out for her ambiguous nationality, which becomes a vital thematic detail when exploring the overlapping cultural zones depicted in the film. Although she is heard speaking fluent Japanese from the start, the location and circumstances of her birth are never revealed, making her citizenship uncertain to viewers. Even as she occasionally takes a secondary role to major story developments, Ageha is presented as true child of Yen Town, thereby embodying the cultural, linguistic, legal, geographical, and ideological fluidity that distinguishes her alternative community from its host society. Significantly, the precise location of Yen Town is never disclosed (although it is assumed to be Tokyo), suggesting the possibility that disenfranchised peoples can band together anywhere, and across racial lines, with a sense of transcultural freedom that exists, paradoxically, in tandem with their material or financial immobility. The film’s hypothesis that capital both forms and destroys communities is poignant, and while things do not end necessarily on a happy note, Iwai’s conceptualizations of social bonds independent of a national framework are, at times, cautiously utopic.

The film oscillates tonally and stylistically, sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. Iwai’s presentation is often thought-provoking and dramatically gratifying, but at others, becomes irritatingly heavy-handed in its symbolism, such as when Ageha recalls a memory of killing a butterfly as a child. The film features an abundance of hand-held photography that produces an air of social realism, but this is accompanied by a range of indulgent stylistic devices, such as freeze frames and jump cuts; these techniques are reoriented toward a flashy music video aesthetic during numerous (and overlong) song sequences that showcase Glico’s, and therefore Chara’s, singing abilities. Swallowtail’s overall sensibilities are youthful and vibrant, and the film proved to be a hit among young adults in Japan and in broader East Asia. Despite its limited exposure outside of Japan, the film is undoubtedly a precursor to what Douglas McGray would famously call Japan’s "gross national cool" to describe the country’s pop cultural output. Of some relevance to Japanese media’s later, global boom is the film’s emphasis on the importance of shared media – particularly music – in bridging cultural boundaries and introducing marginal voices to the mainstream.

Among scholars, however, these elements in the film have been problematic. According to Eric Cazdyn, Swallowtail’s "gratuitous aesthetic gestures" preclude the audience’s engagement with serious topical questions the narrative raises about domestic attitudes toward foreigners within Japan’s labor economy (The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, 161). Elsewhere, Mika Ko has argued that the film promotes a "cosmetic multiculturalism" (adopting Morris-Suzuki’s phrase in Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and the
Problem of Japaneseness) that fetishizes pleasurable stories of young and beautiful immigrants without considering their real, lived experiences with sufficient depth. While this reviewer believes there remains much to admire about the film, these scholars are fair in pointing out that Iwai too often prioritizes style over substance. This opens him up to legitimate criticisms that his opus about the hardships of immigrants consists mainly of what Inuhiko Yomota views as a touristic fascination with otherness (Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia, 81-84). This dilemma, of a seemingly earnest message of multicultural coexistence being undercut by the superficiality of its delivery, is visible throughout the film’s many strengths and accompanying shortcomings.

And to be sure, the film has many strengths. Swallowtail’s sprawling narrative is not without some missteps (for example, Ageha’s eventual command of a gang of street kids is unrealistic and silly), but these are largely forgivable, and the various subplots, for the most part, are dramatically engaging. Amid these storylines, the main plot involves the chance discovery of a secret audiocassette being smuggled by a member of the yakuza, who is killed accidentally when he attempts to rape Ageha and the others come to her defense. Sutured into the lining of his stomach, the mysterious cassette (a recording of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, which becomes a musical motif throughout the film) is found to contain a hidden electronic signal that can fool automatic teller machines into confusing 1,000-yen notes for 10,000-yen notes. That is, each electronically disguised 1,000-yen note causes the machines to dispense ten notes in return, resulting in a 9,000-yen profit. The group uses their gains to open a nightclub and launch the Yen Town Band, with Glico as its lead singer, which soon becomes a sensation nationwide. Glico’s newfound fame, however, begins to create rifts in the family, and in particular between her and Fei-Hong. (The metaphorical linkage here between prostitution and shilling for the music industry is perhaps a tad unsubtle.) Meanwhile, factions of the underworld search to retrieve the cassette; this includes Rio Ranki (Yosuke Eguchi), the ferocious leader of the Shanghai crime syndicate operating in Yen Town, and unbeknownst to most, Glico’s older brother.

A colorful roster of supporting characters – all of them well-cast – includes Kaori Momoi as a feckless tabloid journalist digging into Glico’s past; Andy Hui as a violent assassin with a painted face who acts as Rio’s chief enforcer; and veteran actor and musician Mickey Curtis as a back alley doctor who rescues Ageha from an inadvertent drug overdose. What is particularly compelling when watching these characters is the ease with which the film shifts between spoken languages, with the majority of the dialogue comprised of English, Japanese, and Mandarin; several characters speak two of these languages but not a third, requiring Ageha to mediate between them. Between the liberal alternating of languages, thick accents, and hybridized/improvised syntax, subtitles are a necessity for all viewers. In spite of this fascinating component, however, the dialogue is occasionally clunky, feeling more like the gimmicks of a screenwriter than conversations occurring naturally within the world the characters occupy. Real multilingual people know that people do not banter so idiomatically in their non-native languages, and the results are a distraction from the effects of the scene.

Exemplifying a number of these dynamics is one of Swallowtail’s most memorable peripheral characters, a slick Westerner (played by Kent Frick) who hustles his way into the Yen Town Band as its manager. Raised in Japan and unable to speak a word of English, the unnamed character orates his (and the film’s) philosophy of proclaiming one’s status as a "Third Culture Kid" and soon assembles a troupe of international musicians. Frick, an American actor with impeccable spoken Japanese, demonstrates where the film’s smart casting choices reinforce its themes by lending it multicultural authenticity. Unfortunately, the presence of actors who have actual Third Culture backgrounds are a detriment to the main cast of characters, most of whom are played by Japanese actors putting on accents, sometimes unconvincingly. Given Iwai’s ambitions, not casting a broader set of Asian ethnicities to match the heterogeneity of life stories featured in the film feels like a wasted opportunity.