Production Company: KSS Inc.
Release: 15 February 1997
Length: 90 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Color: Black and white
Director: Ishii Sogo
Executive Producers: Ito Yasuhiro, Kanno Satoru
Producers: Shimoda Atsuyuki, Kamata Ken’ichi
Screenplay: Ishii Sogo
Original Story: Yumeno Kyusaku
Photography: Kasamatsu Norimichi
Music: Onokawa Hiroyuki
Art Director: Isomi Toshihiro
Editor: Suzuki Kan
Tomonari Tomiko: Komine Rena
Niitaka Tatsuo: Asano Tadanobu
Yamashita Chieko: Kyono Kotomi
Aiko: Mano Kirika
Tsukikawa Tsuyako: Kurotani Tomoka
Matsuura Mineko: Matsuo Reiko
Ebisu: Chong Wi Shing
Kowamote: Ikeda Takeshi
Passenger: Shimada Kyusaku
This Bus Ride Is Murder
Ishii Sogo used to be the bad boy of Japanese film. His 8mm Koko dai panikku (1976) climaxed with a rebellious teen shooting his school to pieces. Crazy Thunder Road (“Kuruizaki sanda rodo,”1980) was a biker-gang parable of right-wing oppression and ultimate revolt against the emperor system.
His stylistics reflected that slam-dance fury–machine-gun cutting, a frenetic hand-held camera, and chaotic set design often threatening to overload the visual field.
But the rot he saw festering at the core of Japanese society finally collapsed in on itself in the wicked parody, The Crazy Family (“Gyakufunsha kazoku,” 1984), a film about a “typical” family that destroys its own home in a search for tiny invaders–ants.
That work’s success abroad secured Ishii’s international notoriety, but at the same time, the aesthetic support behind his vision seemed to collapse in on itself along with the house. Apart from a few shorts, Ishii didn’t shoot another film until the 1994 Angel Dust (“Enjeru dasuto,” 1994).
What emerged from the ten year hiatus was not the wild, anything-goes camera rebel, but a cool, master stylist whose energy seemed to be turned inwards. Both Angel Dust, a psycho-thriller about a serial killer who uses brain-washing, and August in the Water (“Mizu no naka no hachigatsu,” 1995), about a young woman who fearfully awakes to her paranormal powers, explored the profound but disturbing powers human beings possess within themselves.
It is as if Ishii’s own frenetic energy, which had once manifested itself externally in his camera style, has now all been poured into the minds of his characters, who nonetheless must be tied up in a cool, aesthetic exterior. The new Ishii narrative centers on what happens to such repressed energy.
His new film, Labyrinth of Dreams, is a bold continuation of this trend. Tomiko (Komine Rena) is an over-worked conductor on a rural bus line in the 1930s. One day, she is disturbed to get a letter from a friend, another bus conductor, declaring that her fiance/bus driver is out to kill her. The friend had died in a crash just after mailing the letter. Tomiko is then shocked to find that the now ex-fiance, Niitaka (Asano Tadanobu), who survived the accident, has now moved to Tomiko’s company and been assigned to her bus.
In her letters to another friend, Tomiko announces her desire to wreck revenge on Niitaka, suspecting him of committing a series of similar killings. But her energies soon get derailed as she finds herself falling in love with the sullen but mysteriously attractive diver. Knowing such affections might lead to her death, she tries to fight them, but soon gets caught in their irrepressable momentum.
This theme of young women trapped in a “hell” of their own making is common to the work of Yumeno Kyusaku, the early Showa writer of the bizarre and fantastic on whose novel Labyrinth of Dreams is based.
But here Ishii skillfully places the characters in his own cinematic version of hell. The movie’s grainy, black-and-white photography looms like a dark cloud over the story world, immersing everything in a coarse and heartless atmosphere.
A mundane work routine defines most of the activity as the characters seemed condemned in a series of repeated actions. But in the repetitions of Niitaka’s own “murders,” this circularity extends beyond the workplace to become, like the bus route that the two must travel, a metaphor for life and death.
At the centripidal locus of this fateful whirlpool is the unique perspective of a young woman whose letters try to come to terms with her experiences. Her initial solution seems to be to appropriate commonplace narratives of murder and revenge as interpretive strategies, but her own emotions soon undermine that. In the end, the only means she has to escape this oppressive hell is apparently to cut the circle and to give in to those inarticulatable energies.
Ishii’s story then concludes with a return of the repressed, but if one was to find fault with this expertly constructed film, it would lie in the young cast members, who don’t seem fully capable of holding and then releasing such energy. Komine, while excellent in August in the Water as a teen-ager, at 15 seems too young to bear the weight of a adult, irrational love. One can say that the general strategy of casting young “idols” in the end undermines the film’s own power.
Ishii has molded a beautiful cell for his young prisoners. One could only have hoped they could have better borne the energy of such repression.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 27 February 1997, p. 9.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow