The idea of translation within film, viewing outside of the culture that created it, is one that I find particularly interesting. Though we have a definition of the term ‘surrealist’ dating back to Breton and co. a more modern interpretation is that surrealism embodies a lot more than it originally did in it’s Parisian origins. What some may call neo-surrealism is not solely focused on the sub-conscious mind and the psychoanalytic processes used to access it. This seems especially interesting when considering something like ‘Funky Forest: The First Contact’ or ‘Naisu no Mori: The First Contact’- a film directed by Katsuhito Ishii, Shunichiro Miki and Hajime Ishimine – released in 2005. While I’ll go out and label this as a ‘surrealist’ piece of cinema, I have to consider whether I’m only labelling this according to my own cultural norms (I’m from the UK.) It seems important label this film as ‘surreal’ but not necessarily as a product of the same western influences we’ve discussed before (even though these may have influenced the overall development of surrealism in Japanese popular culture.) It’s well established how the art nouveau movement in the western and Asian worlds existed a mutually co-dependant relationship of influence – the subversion of ‘classic’ lines and shades fused with traditional, Oriental ornamentation. However we can see evidence of a kind of juxtaposition and ‘random’ collage effect in the work Utagawa Hiroshige (1786-1865) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) which is reminiscent of a visceral approach to art shared by early surrealists. However this is at a time when surrealism is yet to be conceived within the vast and vague annals of dadaism. Following the actual establishment of the surrealists, we can see the same juxtaposition of seemingly random images and the exaggeration of their form in Japanese advertisement form the 1920s and 30s. But was this as a result of the widespread European movement? Of Japan’s own experimental artists? Or perhaps a fusion of both? So now i’m left with the question, if my attitude to art was formed in Japanese culture, would I find Funky Forest as surreal as I do? Furthermore, when I label it surreal, am I meaning the same thing as a Japanese artist might mean when they use that term. As with language more generally, it’s subjective, and I suppose what i’m saying is that Surrealism more than any other art form emodies that subjectivity – often translating and transforming over different cultures, sub cultures and people generally. It’s subjectivity is part of it’s modern definition, and therefore neo-surrealism, as it pierces the minds of it’s viewers in different ways, often means something else depending on who you ask. If the origin of surrealism in Japanese art is something you’re interested in, I’d recommend reading this article. I found it a very rewarding read –
But anyway, I would definitely define this film as surreal, as do many of its critics in Japan. The film takes the form of a series of short stories, often intertwining with each other. This would explain the use of three directors – whom I presume took different ‘claims’ over each of the 21 stories. Some are longer than others, some seem more visceral and immediate whereas others appear to have a distinct attempt at representing the symbolic. While some do seem like a total rejection of logic and a demonstration of nonsensical disturbance creating memorable images, there are definitely some which seem to tell a story. For me there was an overriding sense of urban life, the loneliness, the customs we take for granted everyday, how we define our identity, and love. Lets take Takefumi (Ryo Kase) and Notchi (Erika Saimon) – both in a relationship (though not necessarily officially) and both young people. From what I can gather, Notchi was a student of Takefumi, and while she’s on the verge of her new adult life, he is slightly further along in time – perhaps in his mid twenties – possibly wasting potential opportunities for a career. The episode starts with them discussing life in a room, listening to music and drinking beer. They speak naturally but ambiguously, already there’s a tension and we can’t tell why. Obviously the story develops to the next logical step – an interstellar dance battle with cosmic beings. Obviously.
This takes place in Takefumi’s dream where he is constantly challenged by Notchi to dance with these elaborately rendered, colourful, dream like beings. But there’s a definite subtext here. Notchi often seems to taunt him, challenge him and maybe that’s the point. Takefumi is passionate about music but is doing nothing with life, he worries too much and can never let go. Notchi however is a far more vibrant individual, seemingly up for any challenge or new thing life can bring her. The dream reflects the reality in an exaggerated sense. As Breton said, the imaginary is what tends to become real. Here we see surrealism simply reflecting reality in a twisted way, and in my opinion, it’s effective at making me feel the struggle of their relationship without shoving exposition down my throat.
Saying this, there are certain episodes where i’d be lying if I said I thought there was any discernible ‘meaning’ in the conventional sense of the world. But I rather think that’s the point. There meaning is applicable only to each individual viewer, who will in turn find their own definition for these events – even if that definition is ‘I’ve no idea what’s going on but I love it’. One particular scene Includes a schoolgirl coming across two aliens (represented by one guy in a tiny tuxedo and another wearing what can only be described as a chicken/bear hybrid onesie) Who are trying to go through some process. She offers to assist them and they end up beginning one of the weirdest sequences I’ve seen on film. This includes opening a box with a sphincter in it, spinning in circles a certain number of times, and eventually pulling out a tiny man from said sphincter who in turn reads test results from a script. At the end of all of it they shout ‘tadaa!’ and reveal themselves to be an entertainment act. The whole scene is thoroughly insane. I know I may be on my own at this point, but I actually found it really entertaining. The pure silliness of it is unpredictable and so there was no point where I felt like I could guess what was about to happen.
Another similar scene is when on of the three brothers in the film (from an earlier story line) Is helping in a Gym class but we soon see that what he’s actually doing is something very different. The best way I can put this is just to say it plainly. He’s essentially tickling the testicles of an old man who proceeds to lactate in the gym, as a girl holding a badminton racket swats at the milk (I think it’s milk? Honestly I’ve no idea.) Following this, a leech-like creature becomes attached to the girl and they have to call the doctor in. He removes this alien like sleeve to reveal a slug with a tiny man’s head. The Doctor removes the leech by taunting it and calling it ‘dumb’. I could go on. I would say you get the picture, but trust me you don’t until you’ve seen it. Again though, the childish silliness of it is actually fairly entertaining. Though it may not as engaging as other pieces of cinema, it immerses you in it’s world, subverting your expectations and demolishing every idea you have about the film.
I suppose the reason I think this film is successful in delivering a surrealist experience is in the ratio between the illogical and the sensory – meaning that the overall impression I got as a viewer wasn’t one of confusion but a sense of experimentation. It felt like a fairly original combination of story telling techniques. While i’m not saying surrealism always has to have an explanation – with works such as ‘Begotten’ existing without any exposition or plot whatsoever – I tend to prefer those bouts of exploration in shorter busts, whereas this film ran to 150 minutes which would, in my opinion, render it too heavily in an experimental form (if that was all filled with tiny alien leeches and dancing robots.) I suppose what I liked most about this work was the sense of immersion you felt into it’s world, which was filled in equal parts with surrealist imagery but was constructed on human relationships. I’d recommend diving into the world of ‘Funky Forest’ if you get a chance, I think you’ll find a world that you enjoy inhabiting and relate to more than you think.