The Japanese director SHINYA TSUKAMOTO is mainly known for his dystopian cyberpunk extravaganza called TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989), connecting action, gore, humor, rapid editing and an experimental approach to the visuals. Tsukamoto seems to be a one-man show according to Williams, because
‘Tsukamoto has largely managed to maintain a handmade approach to his work, serving as writer, director, cinematographer and editor, and often producer, actor, special effects master and art director as well.‘ (Williams, 2005)
He also tries to explore the same themes which are of interest to him. Tsukamoto clears up what his films deal with by stating that
‘My films always talk about the correlation between the decline of physical sensations and the modern city. We live in these cities and little by little we lose this physicality that is a basic part of humanity. But if water enters into that equation, things change.’ (Mes, 2005; 168, 170)
This time, in A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002), he concentrated on emotions. The film feels and looks like a ‘Tsukamoto’ production, but it has profundity and layers that are unusual to his signature. The film deals with and resolves issues about marriage, death and repressed sexual desires between the three key characters. Each of them receives its own segment inside the film, collecting their point-of-view, shameful inner thoughts, extreme fears and forgotten aspirations.
‘I wanted to make an entertaining film that included erotic and thriller aspects. However, […] I cannot accept that women only exist to be raped, like in the S&M magazine I read. They go through the process of it, but we see the eventual light at the end of the tunnel for her life. That was my hope in making this film.’ (Tsukamoto, 2015)
BEHIND THE NAME OF THE FILM
When Tsukamoto was asked where his idea for the title of the film came from, he explained straightforwardly how
‘In Japan, we have a rainy season in June that lasts a long time. Raining all the time. […] Although June is too humid and wet it makes us feel disgusting, however, that memory springs to mind. At that time, I had an image of a glamorous woman who has a wild style. She begins to dissolve and to move sinuously like a snake. Then I had the idea for the title. It is June – the rainy season. A smartly dressed city woman. Her clothes gradually dissolve and she is wet. The snake in her mind starts to stir.’ (Tsukamoto, 2015)
Rinko symbolically moves her body like a SNAKE during the scene where she’s photographed in the rain. Her movements are associated with a snake not because she wants to seduce men, but because a snake is always connected with fear. She has a fear of herself, of her needs, the expectations she has to deliver to her husband and society as a woman. In constant fear, she remains closed up.
When speaking of the visual style of this film, the striking blue tint was never presented on film in this extraordinary way. Tsukamoto insisted on this specific color because
‘color always has meaning. […] I’m always particular about the color in my films. […] The reason I chose the color for this movie was that I was attracted by monochrome nude photography, for instance, the work of photographers Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton.’ (Tsukamoto, 2015)
‘In June we have lots of rain. The rain hits the concrete and it gradually soaks into the ground it turns grey to blue. […] A blue grey? The grey of concrete and blue rain.’ (Tsukamoto, 2015)
PERSPECTIVE AND REPRESSION
The audience doesn’t always see the character’s motivation for the things they do, and most times they just can’t figure out the character, if he’s a good or bad character, because the director is intentionally trying to deceive the spectator by adding unreal scenes and abrupt cuts, denying the audience a clear ending. In this film it is crucial to know that
‘The characters desensitization is entirely self-inflicted.’ (Mes, 2005; 178)
The first scene where Rinko (ASUKA KUROSAWA) appears in, she is in her cubicle of the Mental Health Center doing her job. A seemingly angry woman appears at the front door searching for her. It turns out, the woman is happy for the service Rinko provided and saved the life of her son. The perspective shifted, from angry to grateful. It is important to notice how Rinko reacts to the praise of her accomplishment. She isn’t happy, in fact, she begins to shiver, because she is frightened. Why would she behave like that when the purpose of her job is fulfilled?
Events may appear or be presented in one way, but mean the exact opposite:
- RINKO – She has an ungrateful job, dealing with patients who want to commit suicide and talking them out of it. Since she is putting all her effort to reassure her patients that everything will be okay, she has no energy or sexual desire to satisfy her husband at home. Their daily routine doesn’t include spending time together, eating lunch together or even sleep in the same bed together. Both have a job that is demanding, but none will talk about their problems at work. It may have been the way to communicate in the beginning of their relationship, but during the years, her stories about suicide threats, or his stories about the unfriendly colleagues wore them out. So, they found a system to exist in a peaceful and easy environment, not bothering each other and not to expect big efforts either. Many years later, she is blackmailed into doing sexual acts in public, which is disastrous, but the truth is the opposite. She represses her sexual urges for so long that she started to fantasize about exhibitionism and sexual deviancy, anything that can turn her on, and the blackmailer is just helping her to unleash that desire. The director confirms
‘The first half of this film is quite tough on the female character, but I didn’t intend to make her miserable. I wanted the heroine to be happy in the end.‘ (Tsukamoto, 2002)
- SHIGEHIKO – Rinko’s husband seems satisfied with the emotionless marriage they are leading. During the years Shigehiko (novelist YUJI KOTARI) learned to control himself and to stay away from his wife. By keeping himself busy he has an excuse to avoid desires. When she tells him that she has cancer and needs to remove a breast to stop cancer from spreading, he behaves like a child, hurt that someone took his toy away. But the truth is, he is very frustrated. He avoids sleeping with her in the same bed, he compulsively cleans the drains, the bathtub and the kitchen sink all the time and stays in his usual café long after his work only to avoid spending time with her, so he can repress his sexual desires and urges.
- IGUCHI – He is a still-life photographer dying of cancer. Iguchi (SHINYA TSUKAMOTO) wanted to end his life, but before he dies he wants to harass Rinko, blackmailing her into sexual acts, but the truth is different. In a way, he felt photographing still-life is photographing death. These photos won’t and can’t change anyone’s life. Rinko advised him to ‘find what you really want to do, and you’ll be ok,‘ so he thought about what he wanted to do. Slowly dying made him realize that he wanted to capture a sign of life in his photographs. He wanted to capture something worthwhile, something that only a skilled photographer can notice and present to his audience. Joyful about his new decision, he wanted to thank Rinko for her help. Something had to happen in-between, because he decided otherwise and begun to stalk her instead. He observes her, learns details about her and then he takes pictures of her. Pictures of a real human. With real and honest emotions. Now his photographs can actually change someone’s life. The way she helped him to do what he wanted to do, he now wants to repay that favor with the same method – through the phone.
SIGNS THE BIZARRE SCENES WERE ONLY HALLUCINATIONS
Bizarre, surreal or unreal elements inside a film are used by Art-films to convey a deeper message, something that wasn’t meant to be said out loud. It is for the spectator to find out what is meant by that peculiar scene. About A Snake of June, Mes explains that
‘these fantasy scenes, only two in number, are both experienced by Shigehiko, whose obsession allows for such delusions.’ (Mes, 2002).
By suppressing his sexual urges and denying himself an outlet, his mind formed twisted fantasies that explain his state.
What is happening in the UNDERGROUND CLUB? Iguchi helped Rinko to unleash her inner desires and to live out her fantasies, so she can have a happy life. Rinko, becoming this fulfilled, stronger, authentic version of herself notices that Shigehiko is closed up as well. So,
‘to liberate her husband, Rinko asks for Iguchi’s help.’ (Mes, 2005; 182)
Iguchi spikes Shigehiko’s water in the café he is spending his time before coming home. Also, Rinko gave Iguchi her husband’s cell phone number, which is used immediately after Shigehiko leaves the café. When hearing Iguchi’s voice, he doesn’t know who is he talking to, and in the process of finding out, he falls face-first into a trashcan. During his blackout, he experiences the hallucination about the underground club. Everything that happens is the manifestation of his inner emotions, fear and desires.
- He and many other men have a strapped-on mask on their face which restricts their point of view. Through this mask, that has a round hole in it, Shigehiko’s worldview is explicitly presented in front of him. His deepest fears are exposed before his eyes. A young couple is forced to have intercourse on stage. Both don’t like it and don’t enjoy it, but go along with it. This can be traced back to when Rinko and Shigehiko were married for a just short time and her job already took a toll on them. They forced themselves to create a connection, a sex-life, but they failed in the attempt. He looks at the displayed performance and he doesn’t enjoy it, he seems careful.
- The intercourse stops and the couple is taken away and put inside a giant tank with a round window, so everyone can see what happens inside the tank. The tank is representing their apartment and the round window is just like the one Rinko is starring at when she lies in the bathtub. The couple, representing Rinko and Shigehiko, of course, begins to drown in the water that the underground people are letting inside the tank. The couple struggles, but it is clear they won’t make it. Forced sex is replaced by death.
Shigehiko, flooded by his guilt and fear, stands up and tries to run away from the sight. The scene shows symbolically what will happen to his marriage if they keep denying each other. The underground workers got to Shigehiko, blindfolded him, drove to an unknown street in the city and ditched him still restrained and blindfolded. The next scene shows Shigehiko in his office building talking on his cellphone to Rinko’s doctor. How did he free himself? Did someone help him? Why are there no clues for the underground club scene to have happened? Because it didn’t. There is no evidence, not even a thought in Shigehiko’s mind about the traumatic event he’s gone through, because he knows it wasn’t real and he shouldn’t give any thought about it. This hallucination is merely staged for the spectator, to show Shigehiko has feelings and fears. Without this perspective, he presents a problem and it would be wise for Rinko to divorce him.
With the protagonist being a female, Tsukamoto already shows the different route he is taking inside his extraordinary filmography. The themes he explores stayed the same, but the perspective changed and it is more engaging than in his previous efforts. This film
‘offers a series of visually arresting, stylized setpieces that present classically voyeuristic images bathed in flowing streams of rainwater and shimmering blue illumination.’ (Williams, 2005)
A Snake of June requires multiple viewing, because each new viewing the audiences find a new clue they didn’t notice the last time they watched it. Many prejudices are knocked down and many perspectives change and if it still isn’t clear what the film is about, remember Rinko and Shigehiko may be responsible for their emotionless marriage, but Iguchi is the main reason why they will live happily ever after.
There is more on A Snake of June, head over to:
Mes, Thomas, Iron Man – The cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, Fab Press, 2005
Mes, Thomas, midnighteye.com, http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/a-snake-of-june/, 2002
Sato, Kuriko and Tsukamoto, Shinya, midnighteye.com, http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/shinya-tsukamoto/, 2002
Tsukamoto, Shinya, Shooting A Snake of June: Making of, Blu ray feature, Third Window Films, 2015
Williams, David E., theasc.com, https://theasc.com/magazine/dec05/dvd/page2.html, 2005