Vortex & Others: 5 Short Works by Yoshihiro Ito
- Original title
- Fukanshu Gemu
- Imajinari Rain
- Kachu no Hito
- Sanma no Hi
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 98 minutes
- 5 February 2009
by Dean Bowman
I recently had the rare privilege of meeting independent Japanese filmmaker Yoshihiro Ito at London's Raindance film festival, where he was showing a programme of films, none of which have ever been screened before in the UK. But despite not being at all well known either here or in Japan, Ito's films are incredibly solid works of art all shot on 16mm with a deliriously beautiful, saturated aesthetic. Somewhat influenced in terms of technique and atmosphere by early Shinya Tsukamoto, who became the standard bearer for indie film in Japan after his 16mm no-budget masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Ito's films are none the less entirely fresh in conception, and filled with a wry humour that offsets the often bizarre narrative events. Consequently his works exude a charm and confidence that completely challenges the notion that they might be considered difficult. To use the example of painting, he is closer to Chagall than he is to Dali.
The madcap narrative antics include: Wife's Knife, the story of a man who is unreasonably terrified of his wife, a kind of cross between Lucille Ball and Jack Nicholson from The Shining who calmly follows him around town brandishing a mackerel that she has bought him for lunch; Umeshinju (literally meaning 'Plum Double Suicide', signifying a cheap or low-grade love suicide) in which two lovers attempt to commit double suicide although neither have the use of their arms; and Imaginary Lines, in which a woman interacts with the ghosts of two dead friends to the concern of those around her. The films stylistically touch base with a rich vein of surrealism in Japanese cinema that include directors such as Seijun Suzuki and Shohei Imamura. The sensory overload inspired by the look of his films provides a perfect conduit for the eccentric nature of their content, giving him a great deal in common with the irreverent stylings of Suzuki in particular.
Thematically these films are just as fascinatingly enigmatic. Speaking at the start of the screening with earnest candour, Ito told the audience that if anybody should spot a theme in his films then he would be grateful if they told him. For me they were all metaphors for humanity's inability to communicate, especially across the sexual divide. This is particularly the case in the film Non-Intervention Game, in which a western tourist makes the mistake of exchanging smiles with a crazy girl who is rolling around the pavements in Tokyo's Shibuya district. Having thus formed a bond there is a sharp cut to a shot of the same petite girl eating the man's brains with no one around her so much as batting an eyelid; a grotesquely comic punch line that provides an interesting response to Lost in Translation and sent this reviewer into spasms of laughter.
The key film, though, and the one after which the programme of shorts was named, was Vortex. Supported by the Tama Cinema Forum, it is a self-reflexive and self-deprecating work that follows a director struggling with his new film after winning an award at the very same institution (one of the conditions of the forum's funding award is that it is mentioned in the scenario of the director's next film). As Ito's stand-in sits staring at a computer assiduously sucking on the teat of a chocolate milk bottle, an old flame mysteriously turns up at his door, leads him through his apartment to the balcony and seduces him, whilst a man takes pictures from across the way.
Ito's soundtrack here, as elsewhere, alternates between being tenderly enigmatic, sinister, and quirky. For instance in the scene in which the protagonist confronts his spy and attempts to wrestle the camera from him, the pair appear to be dancing to a deranged waltz upon the Tokyo rooftops. Indeed, a deranged waltz may be the best way to describe character interaction in Ito's films, and certainly here, where the appearance of this mysterious woman (played by Natsumi Seto once more) threatens the protagonist's relationship with his current lead actress and girlfriend Yoko, causing the two women to vie for his affection as though he were a piece of meat. Human beings in Ito's films in general are like clumsy lumps of flesh, bouncing off one another in the vortex of human society. Yet, somehow, he manages to express this rather pessimistic view of human nature without malice or cynicism; his films instead exude a sinister and captivating charm.