Three Short Films from Shunji Iwai
Fried Dragon Fish
Year: 1993
 Shunji Iwai
Rating: 5.5

Every director has to start somewhere and for Japanese directors it is usually the straight to video route for a few years before they get an opportunity to make a film. Or in this case a video that was made for Fuji TV and then later after the director became famous transferred to film stock and shown in theaters. The director in this case being Shunji Iwai who had already made some shorts and TV shows, but for reasons I don't profess to know Fried Dragon Fish seems to be the only one available with English subs. It comes in at 50 minutes for what I assume was a one hour TV show. If so, Japan liked their TV a little bit more offbeat than we did back then. The film also has the extra credit of being one of the first films for Tadanobu Asano, who has gone on to be one of Japan's top actors.

The film is intriguing but not fully fleshed out - it leaves you with the question of "who was that masked man" uncertainty. Not literally masked but figuratively. The plot is a little wacky and nebulous. A detective (Hiroshi Oguchi) is persuaded to buy a data service that has everything you could want to know - he is told. The company sends over a woman to teach him how to use it - and she takes one of his current cases to show him how it can help. A simple case - a biologist Thomas Earwing hires him because he thinks a man named Tobiyama has stolen one of his silver Dragon Fish from his lab and he wants the detective to find it. Not exactly the Maltese Falcon but as he explains to the high energy and whiny Poo (Miyoko Yoshimoto) this is what detective work is. But the data service comes back that information on Tabiyama is top secret and this so peaks her curiosity that she joins up with the detective in looking for the Dragon Fish. This leads her to a young man who has tanks of fish all around him and an ability to kill anyone who is sent to kill him. He is Tadanobu. Who he is he, why people are trying to kill him and why he seems to be able to avoid being killed is never really explained.

Much of the film is shot without any of the pizzazz, visual poetry and beautiful compositions that Shunji was to become known for but there are a few moments that give hints of what is to come in his future films. It was only two years later that Shunji directed Love Letter that became a huge hit and he followed that up with Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story, All About Lily Chou-Chou and Hana and Alice. The only one I have seen is Hana and Alice and its animated sequel The Murder Case of Hana & Alice - and Hana and Alice is a real favorite of mine and the animation is quite good as well. Maybe it is time I did see them.

A Chara song is played over the end credits. Such a great singer and composer and she was to appear in two Shunji films - Picnic and Swallowtail Butterfly. If you don't know her music, check her out on YouTube.

Year: 1994
Director:  Shunji Iwai
Rating: 6.0

A year after Fried Dragon Fish, Shunji Iwai directs and writes this film that is also for Fuji Television. It is definitely on a TV budget with only three actors and much of it shot in one apartment - though the budget for string and rope must have been large. It is visually a treat - stunning compositions, colors, close-ups and images - a big jump from Fried Dragon Fish - and it also seems to be territory that Shunji is more comfortable in - offbeat, elusive, relationship driven. It runs only 47 minutes, moves slowly and yet at times you can't take your eyes off the action or in this case the in-action. What he is aiming for is hard to decipher - love and obsession and how they play out in a relationship perhaps? Are the turtles in their protective shells symbolic? I don't know. Are the ropes symbolic? Your guess is as good as mine and you haven't seen it.

Yukio (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Moemi (Tomoko Yamaguchi) live together and have a fine thing going. She wants a pet - cat or dog - but the apartment won't allow it so Yukio instead brings home two mid-sized turtles that he persuades Moemi that they can take for walks. She then gets her braces taken off - and suddenly he doesn't find her as appealing - though never said one might assume it is because the braces were a sign of innocence and youth - and though Moemi is as childlike as my nerves could stand, it just isn't the same and he buries himself into his work at home.

She begins tying up things with string - small things, then the turtles, then an apple, then the turtles from the ceiling and it is rather cute and amusing. Until it isn't anymore. She obsessively begins to tie everything up in the apartment - he takes her to a psychiatrist who calls it a Malady of Love - "Obsessive Knot-Binding Syndrome". It gets creepier and creepier - verging on insanity - when she asks him to tie her up - tighter - tighter - tighter- you realize they have gone to a place lovers probably should not.

Year: 1996
Director:  Shunji Iwai
Rating: 7.5

This is another Shunji Iwai film produced by Fuji TV in 1994. I am not sure if it was ever put on TV but was instead released into theaters in 1996 , two years after it was made, and after Shunji's hit film Love Letter hit theaters in 1995. If that is the case, you can understand why Fuji may not have shown this on TV. It is a difficult film with some imagery that may have been disturbing to commercial TV audiences back in 1994. The film will leave you thinking - what was Shunji (who also wrote it) trying to get at. It is more technically accomplished and filled out (66 minutes) than Undo was but it is equally perplexing. It seems rampant with possible religious symbolism but to what purpose. Is it being critical of religion - Christianity in this case - or is that just being used to push the film forward to where Shunji wanted it to go. It takes place in a mental institution and that immediately sparks thoughts of whether the institution is a symbol of society as we have seen in other films or is it just a mental institution. Are they angels, are they lunatics, are they disciples?

Coco (the singer Chara) is placed in an institution by her parents who seem relieved to be rid of her. The institution looks like an old factory made into an institution with its gray peeling walls, narrow corridors and cluttered roof top. Patients just seem to drift around like clouds with no place to be. Coco becomes friendly with two other patients - Tsumuji (Tadanobu Asano - he was to marry Chara soon after the film) and Satoru (Koichi Hashizume). There isn't much doubt left to the viewer that they are right where they belong - they are certifiable.

Coco has a black feathery jacket that she refuses to give up and one night she catches a crow outside her window and kills it, plucks its feathers and sews them into her jacket. Tsumuji either killed or thinks he killed his teacher and he has fantasies about this teacher coming to visit him and asking him to unzip his pants, take out his penis - where upon a monstrous worthy of Miike six-headed penis comes out and begins urinating buckets - all while Satoru in the background is wildly masturbating about Coco.

One day the three of them walk out of the institution and come across a choir of young girls singing at a Catholic church and they stop to listen sitting on a wall, The priest comes out and asks if they are angels and then discusses God with them - Coco is sure that the world began with her birth and will end with her death. Tsumuji says he doesn't believe in God and the priest gives him his bible to read. He does and begins to believe in it literally - and that the world will end on a specific day. They are thrilled to hear this and decide to go on a picnic to watch it end.

It is beautifully shot and the walk on top of walls and ledges to get to the picnic is at times just poetic - to the music of Remedios who had also provided the music for Fried Dragon Fish, Undo and Love Letter - as the camera tracks them simply walking, Coco all in black with her broken black umbrella and the other two in white - which again feels symbolic. There is some wonderful imagery but the final image is stunning - breathtaking - shattering.