Black, White, and the Grey that Separates Them

Rokugatsu no Hebi (A Snake in June)

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 2 (Film review 1 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 31 October 2005.

A Snake of June
(Original Japanese Title: Rokugatsu no hebi, 2002)
Dir: Tsukamoto Shinya
Cast: Kurosawa Asuka, Kohtari Yūji, Tsukamoto Shinya, et al.
Studio: Tartan Video
Black and White, Japanese with English subtitles, 77 minutes
Rated: R (USA), 18 (UK), 16 (Germany), 18 (South Korea)
DVD Release (USA): 22 February 2005
ASIN: B00070Q8KO (Region 1 - USA and Canada)
ASIN: B00011FXH8 (Region 0 - PAL)
2002 Venice Film Festival Kinematix Film Award

Although few of his films are available outside of Japan, those that are, are stunning examples of avant-garde, narrative cinema. Tsukamoto Shinya has directed eleven films, the best-known of which is Tetsuo, from 1988. In itself Tetsuo would be enough to create a powerful reputation for this director, representative as it is of some of his obsessions with film and its ability visually to create claustrophobic, intimate relations between the viewer and the viewed. However, Tetsuo is not the best example of this obsession. For that, we have A Snake of June (Rokugatsu no hebi, 2002).

The central issue here is precisely that relationship between the viewer and the viewed, the watcher and the object of the gaze. The story is a simple one. Tatsumi Rinko (Kurosawa Asuka) is a therapist at a phone-in crisis centre—her days are spent counselling the weak, the lost, the despondent. She is effective; she reaches those who call her, and is able to provide them with a reason to carry on. She is also married to a man, Shigehiko (Kohtari Yuji), who pays more attention to the cleanliness of his kitchen sink than to Rinko. They sleep apart, and while they do talk, they never touch. Rinko touches herself—a secret of which she is ashamed, and which she is horrified to discover has become known to a voyeur (played admirably by Tsukamoto Shinya himself), an unknown former caller to her crisis centre named Iguchi who has photographed her in compromising circumstances. He blackmails her, forcing her to do things she would never do otherwise, all the while offering to return to her the negatives of the photographs he'll deliver to her husband should she refuse. Rinko gives in; the voyeur demands increasingly embarrassing displays from her. The husband discovers her behaviour; spies on her; is humiliated, beaten by a strange, surreal group—and through this crisis, he and Rinko overcome their distance. The film ends with the two in passionate embrace.

Not a subject for everyone, that's true, but the presentation is remarkable—the cinematography, in beautiful black and white, and editing are both by Tsukamoto, who shows himself to be a master of mood and light. The film feels like Japan in June—the rain which fills every shot creates a close, steamy, oppressive atmosphere that underscores the building tension between Rinko and Shigehiko. The camera's gaze is more than intimate, obtrusively focussing on Rinko and placing her very much on display. The black and white film concentrates on texture, making the bare concrete of Rinko's apartment appear palpably rough, the overflowing drains appear fathomlessly deep, and Rinko's skin appears elastic and warm.

Despite the undeniably sensual atmosphere of the film, and its almost impossible ability to overcome the limitations of the medium and appeal to the senses of sound and touch, it is the gaze which is the fundamental issue here. While the camera's gaze is first and foremost concentrated on Rinko, it shows us that it is not alone in watching her. Passers-by in the street and shops seem to stare at Rinko, and so, of course, does the voyeur, his obsession with her filtered through the lens of his camera as Tsukamoto's own obsession with gaze is filtered through his camerawork in the film. Cinematography becomes the mediator of desire here; secret, passionate, shameful desire that separates characters and creates a barrier between husband and wife, a loathing between Rinko and Iguchi, and a fascination between characters and audience. Desire is predicated upon distance, mediation, and private, alienating objectification. Not surprisingly, disease figures in this mix as well, for Iguchi tells Rinko that he can see on her body the evidence of a hidden cancer—she will surely die unless she undergoes a mastectomy, which the climax of the film reveals she has refused. Here, too, it is desire mediated through the gaze which reveals Rinko's depth of character and makes possible the eventual epiphanous breakthrough with her husband, for both he and the voyeur photographer have become the obsessed admirers of Rinko's exposed body.

The craft of the film is impressive, as is the skill of the actors portraying the small cast, especially Kurosawa Asuka, herself a relatively new actress. This was only her fourth film at the time, but her highly sympathetic characterisation of Rinko is captivating. She has the obvious strength of personality required to don this difficult persona and carry the subtle mix of shame and growing physical confidence embodied in Rinko convincingly, permitting Rinko's transformation by the film's close to appear sincere, natural, and redemptive. Kohtari Yuji had had even less exposure than Kurosawa to this point, though, having appeared in only one previous film. Nonetheless, his portrayal of the husband obsessed with scrubbing the fixtures of his home was both disturbing and intriguing, capturing the psychologically distanced world in which Shigehiko lived with precision and sensitivity.

It is the camera, however, that is the true star of this film, the creator of the mood, the originator of the gaze which becomes such an overwhelming presence on screen. Intimate, fearless, indeed even shameless, this gaze creates voyeurs of us all, resisting our uncomfortably sympathetic embarrassment as Rinko is humiliated, compelled to face the physicality she has never had the courage to accept within herself, and yet guiding us to Rinko's place of final triumph over the alienation which had kept her separate from her own desire.

It's not an easy journey for Rinko, nor is it one for the audience, but it is a fascinating one, and worth witnessing.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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