46-okunen no koi
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 13 September 2006
Source Shochiku Kinema Kenkyû-jo 35mm print
Walking into a Takashi Miike film is an uneasy experience simply because the director’s work is so regularly unpredictable and peculiar. Such trepidation is justified given that Miike has crafted a reputation in the West, mostly for the brutality displayed in films such as Ichi The Killer, Audition, and the “Box” segment of Three Extremes, where the carnage is presented as either disturbing horror or as dark humor. The success of such films, along with his ability to push the envelope in terms of cinematic violence, has garnered Miike a cult following—he even has a brief cameo in Eli Roth’s Hostel. Miike’s success in the West is certainly attributable to some degree to the proliferation of DVD, as his more graphic films have become readily available in the North American marketplace, and their increased access and exposure has provided Miike with a loyal contingent of Western devotees.
However, though his work in the horror genre has gained him recognition and appreciation in the West, Miike’s overall body of work is considerably larger and more diverse. Such a characteristic shouldn’t really be surprising given that Miike has directed close to seventy films before his forty-fifth birthday. In fact, Miike’s last two entries at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2004’s comical Zebraman and 2005’s amusing The Great Yokai War, have actually been movies geared mostly towards children.
Miike’s latest entry is certainly a departure from his child-friendly fare, but the director still appears fixated on the eternal struggles of youth. Big Bang Love, Juvenile A is not likely to appease his J-horror fanatics who eagerly anticipate the thrills of Miike’s more sadistic work, and certainly is not targeted towards kids awaiting another comic-book adaptation, especially given its mature content. Instead, Miike’s film feels like a brooding existential mystery, frequently kinetic but also periodically pensive, where young men grapple with questions concerning identity and connection.
Miike starts his film off amidst vibrant backgrounds, with scenes involving the attainment and exhibition of masculinity. Immersed in a bright red backdrop, an old man orders a young boy to learn how to mature into an adult man from a stern, often aggressive, master who he warns will grasp the boy by the throat during a ritual of manhood. The scene is joined by the image of a lone male dancer whose elaborate black tattoo covers nearly half of his slim, but muscular, frame. Accompanied by the pounding rhythm and synthetic sounds of industrial music, the dancer’s vigorous movements are intense and assertive against a solid white background, upon which his dark figure casts a sense of menace. However, the dancer’s movements also demonstrate a certain feminine quality due to his slender frame, which Miike appears to be cognizant of given that these initial images appear to represent the universal exertions of mankind. These sparse opening scenes are a contrast to the visual exuberance displayed throughout the remainder of Miike’s film, and they appear to be the most fundamental elements of his more complicated concerns regarding man’s ability to transform himself.
The intangible images that initiate the film are followed by the abrasive image of a young man apparently strangling a fellow inmate to death until discovered by a shocked prison guard. Though instantly seized by guards, the convict quickly admits his murderous actions, and though a solid connection remains elusive, there appears to be an ambiguous link between the young child and dancer that Miike originally greets his audience with and the assailant and victim we have just recently observed. The film then bounces bewilderingly between various scenes in an initially confusing assortment, though we soon comprehend that Miike is weaving together a murder mystery concerning various inmates in a prison for juvenile delinquents as the audience accompanies a pair of police officers that attempt to unravel the events encompassing the murder.
In a series of disjointed and chaotic flashbacks, we watch the relationship that evolves between Ariyoshi, a meek and muted male, and Kazuki, a hostile and rebellious youth. Displaying his restraint, Miike doesn’t distract the viewer with grisly scenes of violence, but rather allows us only a glimpse at the horrific actions that resulted in each man’s incarceration. We witness Kazuki slamming his fist into an off-screen casualty in an assault upon a random annoyance, one he took too far. Meanwhile, we watch Ariyoshi drifting through a sleazy hotel room drenched in blood as a television flickers through the broken image of a nude woman. It seems that Ariyoshi had encountered a man at a local gay bar who he then proceeded to repeatedly stab in nearby hotel room. While Kazuki is a repeat offender and unruly inmate, Ariyoshi is an unlikely prisoner that is frequently harassed by other cellmates. Since Kazuki is scrappy and possesses superior fighting skills and Ariyoshi’s timid demeanor makes him vulnerable prey for the other criminals, Kazuki quickly establishes himself as Ariyoshi’s protector, regularly brutalizing guards and other inmates that threaten Ariyoshi.
There is an obvious sexual facet to the relationship between the two lead characters, and an intimate dynamic between Kazuki and Ariyoshi radiates throughout Miike’s film despite the fact that Miike avoids any overly explicit sex scenes. This may also be due to the assumption made by most of the other characters that the two have participated in some form of sexual relationship in the past, though such a relationship between the two is only implied by Miike. It’s not a difficult conclusion for the audience to arrive at either, considering Miike’s decision to craft delicate displays of their affection toward one another. During their first encounter, the guards order the young men to strip before entering the prison. A veteran of these proceedings, Kazuki swiftly strips without much hesitation, as Miike frames both men with their backs turned to the viewer, seemingly to demonstrate their similarity. Noticing Ariyoshi’s reluctance, Kazuki instructs him to take off his clothes, before softly undressing Ariyoshi himself. Once this initial intimacy is demonstrated, Kazuki then proceeds to batter the cell-mates that feel they can prey upon fresh meat and assault any threatening guards. These types of actions lead to Kazuki being placed in solitary confinement, which he willingly embraces.
While other inmates become important in the solution of the mystery — most notably another young man who toils alongside Ariyoshi in the laundry room, and his overly-jealous companion who works in the infirmary — the film’s most intriguing character is the prison warden. An older man with a wretched past, the prison warden is a truly terrifying personality when we first meet him as he greets our two young detainees. Permanently equipped with a contrived, almost synthetic, smile and a deceptively calm disposition, the warden constantly advocates for the concept of reformation as a method of absolution over time. We soon learn he has crossed paths with Kazuki in the past, with traumatic results for the warden. As the detectives assigned to Kazuki’s murder case doubt Ariyoshi’s confession, their search for another potential assailant results in the prison warden becoming their primary suspect.
The warden is an ominous presence and it is perfectly justifiable for the viewer to be uneasy with his authority. This disquieting sensation is partly the consequence of the undeviatingly artificial smile and the actor’s resolute stillness within the frame, but also results from the director employing various cinematographic techniques to create an enduring sense of discomfort, including angled frames, skewed backgrounds, and pitch black shadows that partially cloak the warden’s face to convey his black and white morality. Amazingly, when the warden’s smile finally cracks in a subtle but distressing facial expression, the audience realizes he is a dismal idealist who has been crushed under the weight of a ruthless and vicious world, where his principles have been crushed by the repeated actions of others.
The stylistic flourish that Miike displays in the scenes involving the warden are hardly the only instance of the director using energetic cinematic techniques to convey his message. Indeed, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A is virtually awash in visual cinematic technique that radiates a particular New Wave influence, whether it’s elliptical editing, jump-cuts, bold color schemes, or the hand-held cameras applied to convey the chaotic and intimidating atmosphere inside the enclosed prison cell. At a point in the investigation where the detectives encounter a revelation, one of the officers literally steps through a seemingly solid barrier. Miike’s most noticeable teasing of formal boundaries is having the investigators’ questions appear as written text on the screen, which the characters then responds to afterwards. As characters address the camera directly with their responses, we encounter a merging of perspectives between the camera, the detectives, and the audience, which in some ways unites the entire investigation as a cinematic exercise.
Within certain scenes, Miike seeks to craft the prisoners’ isolation and alienation. As Ariyoshi and Kazuki are lead through the prison grounds they pace through rows of inmates clustered into pools of light, which they appear imprisoned within. As well, Miike persistently creates restrictive frames around his characters within his compositions as if to imply they are trapped to a far greater extent than they desire, and the director often blurs his images to convey his protagonists’ inability to attain clarity. Later, as Ariyoshi labors in the laundry room, close-ups of his feet immersed in water and the repeated sloshing sounds of his legs, seek to convey the grueling monotony of work. These scenes of men stressed over their daily labor also parallel moments when our detectives stagger up a spiraled staircase while discussing the details of their case, clearly exerting mental effort with every physical step.
Perhaps most significant is Miike’s ability to create a sense of insignificance. As Ariyoshi and Kazuki continue to bond, they begin to enjoy conversations about greater questions involving freedom from this mortal existence. These discussions usually take place whenever the two inmates are able to temporarily escape from their dreary prison to an outside platform amidst distant massive structures that offer liberation in different forms. The first structure is a modern space shuttle that appeals to Kazuki as it offers him travel beyond the heavens, while the other is an immense ancient pyramid that Ariyoshi trusts to lead to heaven itself, if one is willing to climb its endless steps. As both characters speak of their theories and preferences, each representing science and faith, Miike minimizes their size within his image and even corners his characters to the sides of his frame. The resulting composition seems to imply that all their battles, brawls, and labors may be trivial compared to the larger questions of existence.
In setting up these scenes and creating his elaborate structure, it seems Miike wants his protagonist’s struggles within the prison to take on a greater metaphorical significance, particularly given the bizarrely theatrical appearance of the prison itself. In some ways, Ariyoshi remains the young child that is fearful of adulthood who we initially stumble upon within the abstract opening scenes, while Kazuki may be terrified by the results of a life repeatedly penetrated by abuse. It’s understandable if we assume this entire scenario within the prison may be a representation of a young man grappling with the difficulties of physical, psychological, and sexual maturity within his own psyche, especially as Miike occasionally places a butterfly — a significant symbol of metamorphosis (at least in Western culture) — within the same frame as his protagonists.
Unfortunately the murder mystery narrative begins to intrude upon these weightier questions and restricts any deeper exploration of these existential dilemmas in favor of offering a concise conclusion. Soon, a resolution is arrived at via another man’s attempt to end his own existence due to his inability to comprehend Kazuki’s methods for satisfying his own desires for liberty. Kazuki appears to have been unable to handle the forgiveness he is offered, perhaps understanding himself to be undeserving, and instead seems overwhelmed by his own guilt. In a series of somewhat awkward scenes, the defiant rebel literally turns into a child within Ariyoshi’s warm embrace, and must quickly manipulate an act of sexually-inspired hostility for his own purposes. Thus, Kazuki leaves behind Ariyoshi, and his morose mate must sustain himself with the knowledge that he was unable to offer his companion and protector the release he required. Miike then ends his film with the image of a steady stream of pedestrians, both male and female, rising to street level in a modern metropolis. The image is accompanied by text that declares our existential struggles ceaseless. Thankfully, the image is a much more fitting conclusion to Miike’s film than the cumbersome conclusion of the murder investigation, as it allows the viewer to briefly ponder the daily struggles of our current state of being. While Miike may view our current state as a form of captivity, he appears to take solace in our ability to continue to envision the possibility of the state of existence beyond our grasp. Whether that state is a creation of science or faith, Miike latest film seems to posit that such ability is essential to sustaining and surviving any imprisonment.