Though of a different director and genre, I’m reminded how, upon the release of Sanjuro (1962), some western critics hailed the film as the moment that director Akira Kurosawa consciously choose to make a film focussed on a western audience. He refuted the claim and stated how, if his films didn’t first and foremost resonate with a Japanese audience, then he had no interest in making one. Yet his films can be watched by anyone and are themselves influenced by others – John Ford always being often name checked by Kurosawa – and he would influence others, who would make very different films such as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. What’s the point of all this when we’re here for Funky Forest: The First Contact and Warped Forest? Simply, those four directors, making different films with varying influences, all made films with a universal appeal. You don’t need to know their influences or even what their films might be homages to, or cultural references to in order to enjoy their work. In some cases it will enrich the experience but it is not essential as the storytelling, characterisations and emotions tend towards universality: we can all understand it. Whereas Funky Forest: The First Contact and Warped Forest seem too often to forget these basic principles.
So what is this double feature?
Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005 – dir. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki) - an alien observes earth, including three brothers who cannot get a girlfriend; Notti and her maybe-boyfriend Takefumi, and many others in 21 sometimes interconnecting stories.
Warped Forest (2011 - dir. Shunichiro Miki) - three sets of three friends or family contemplate their relationships, the possibility of dream tinkering and a panoply of nipples, penis-rifles, oversized human-beings and more navels than you can count.
On paper much of the two films sounds really rather good, and both films started intriguingly. Warped Forest is often described as a spiritual successor to Funky Forest, a statement that seems mainly correct, though it reflects those parts of Funky Forest that Miki directed, rather than some of the more varied elements provided by the remaining two directors. Nevertheless the opening of both films reminded me of the tone of Twin Peaks and this was intriguing, boding well...
But let’s get into films, starting with:
Funky Forest: The First Contact
At two and half hours, it’s a long film and as a viewer, by the end, I really felt it. The problem for me with Funky Forest is not that it is a bad film but that it is a by nature an intrinsically "bitty" film. Recently re-watching Tampopo and reading how its director, Juzo Itami, originally intended to have the film be a series of scenes about food only to stop and reconfigure the screenplay as he recognised that the film had no centre, no emotional core; then eventually developing the central story that provides Tampopo it’s warmth and humanity. Funky Forest has no core, no centre; yes some of the stories and characters interlace and interact at times, but often the film is no more than a series of skits, not even stories.
They are almost all very focussed on satirising parts of Japanese culture, and all in an exaggerated fashion. I have no issues with exaggeration but the film is rarely very funny because it’s humour often seems to be derived from very specific satire than has little in the way of universality; or else director Shunichiro Miki’s elements (I'm assuming based on his introduction to the second film in the set, where he describes the sequences in FF he directed), which tend towards an obsession with nipples, penises, lactation, and orifices of all kinds. While this might seem amusing it's frequently a bit forced. Miki's items especially can veer towards being a bit bland, sometimes painfully laboured (and this with all those nipples and insertions), and often a knock-off of more meaningful body-horror work: David Cronenberg’s Existenz and Videodrome seemed at various times to be an inspiration for slow moving scenes that, though initially intriguing, just drag on without Cronenberg's sense of meaning. I know here the intention is more towards the satire and humour but it hasn't got the panache to be that funny. I know many have found the film visually arresting but it seems more a matter of intriguing set design than anything meaningful. I admit here I've probably hit most on the negatives, mainly because Funky Forest is an experiment and I'm not sure it's always a successful one, but it has some superb moments which sadly got a bit lost in the rest of the film for my taste.
If the film had been shorter, trimmed to a more palatable length, the reality could have been quite different. That's because there’s some really good parts in amongst the distractions: the hand-drawn anime sequence towards the end, satirising the transfer pupil in high school who goes from enemy to friend, is truly excellent and where the experimental side of the film really shines, but coming in after two hours of the film, I for one had become tired with the film's episodic nature; unfortunate, too, because it dovetails with an earlier story where the satire again excels because it is universally ludicrous for an anime to be directed by a dog whose thoughts are interpreted by a medium.
Too often though the scenes are just one after another of people talking about "things" and it's just not interesting enough in isolation, because characterisation is sketchy leaving nothing to keep your attention if you don’t find the film hilarious or visually fascinating. This is odd because there is a running theme through many of the stories about the fragility of relationships, especially some of the sequences between Notti and her maybe-boyfriend Takefumi, which hint at the possibility of adding something with emotional depth for an audience to really get stuck into, but instead the director will cut away to a Home Room sequence (which are fine, don’t get me wrong), or another one of three friends telling each other stories that don’t do much for the characters let alone the audience. And then even when the film works, the near final sequence is beautifully filmed, uses sound and music to great effect but is then deflated by a comedic moment that just feels like a rushed punchline and undermines an otherwise expertly constructed short piece of filmmaking.
Notti and Takefumi come as close as anyone to bringing character and heart to the film - and they get to do a dance-off!
To me, Funky Forest was a film without a punchline and some of it seems unintentionally ludicrous - the three brothers who cannot get a girlfriend, one of whom is an overweight Caucasian kid, the idea that actor Tadanobu Asano (known as the Guitar Brother and yes his songs are crap) cannot get a date is insane, considering he’s good looking and sadly a much better actor than the film requires of him. Most of the cast, as they only get comedy skits, I cannot say much about excepting Erika Nishikado as Notti, who seems to have the best part, and acquits herself well utilising a great deal of sly charm. It even stars Evangelion director Hideaki Anno but the film, though often full of vibrant enthusiasm and crude devices, and not to mention a lot of jump cuts and yes did I like the jump cuts, just outstays its welcome by at least an hour. By the end I was running out of good will; I really wanted to love the film but just couldn't connect to it. It’s a shame as individually there’s some great moments but it never meshes, it’s a film without a centre and much of the visual body humour is laboured or lacking in universality. Some of it can be quite crude but there’s nothing in the crudity that inspires you to think that it has the right balance of intelligence behind it that made comedy like Monty Python work, where they mesh low and high-brow. That said it’s two and a half hour running time felt shorter than the eighty-minutes of (drumroll please - Ed):
Once again, the opening moments were promising; three middle-aged friends finding themselves jumped forward in time. Then the film becomes a frankly tedious exercise in the audience showing undue patience towards a film that does not deserve it. Though there are a load of various ideas and effects, the film just felt fractured, a series of ideas slammed together willy-nilly (pun intended). Yes, we have a series of friends together, and there are various infidelities or wannabe infidelities and broken families, but the film is obsessed (and I mean obsessed) with nipples, penises and orifices to such an extent that it feels like director Miki has some emotional problems he needs to air anywhere other than on screen. Characters suck on weird drinks that seem like extended nipples and talk to each in other in slow voices, mostly to no particular end. It may be a reflection on the budget, but most locations are shot identically, as if a static camera was set up and then every scene shot there in a hurry. For a film with as many writhing demi-penises and nipples and sexualised imagery – more vagina imagery than you could shake a dildo at – the film is bizarrely lacking any kind of visual or narrative energy and for me this is the real issue. Whereas Funky Forest could be sharp - and I really liked how it used jump cuts to break up scenes sometimes into the thinnest of moments - Warped Forest lacks this spirit of invention.
That said the effects work is really very good indeed; they're superbly designed and realised on screen. For reasons I suspect only the director knows, some characters are normal sized while some are giants, and the way this is shot is seamless. For example, the outside scenes with the women growing the vagina fruit everyone seems to eat is beautiful, organically designed and well executed. But this hardly seems to matter when the content is episodic; true, sometimes it can work, but these seem slender, subtle moments like the angry giant store clerk and the store owner's mistress who have momentary interactions; you read what's going on under the surface but the film hasn't enough of these subtle moments to go around. True, some of the strands come together at the end, because like Funky Forest the stories are interlocking, but the 70-odd minutes in-between beginning and end sadly just felt exhausting. What should be obvious from above is that there is an enormous amount of eroticised and sexualised imagery, but it never feels either genuinely sexual or erotic, as the film seems to lack the maturity for any of that.
Funky Forest feels like an experimental film, which is always a tough sell because it will tend to leave audiences on either side of the fence; it meshes styles, mediums and tones and as such is scattershot. I still think it culpable for its lack of universality of satire, but the meshing means that those moments of genuine cleverness and skill can be missed, but they are there: one of the undateable brothers, dancing to a traditional song, contains subtle choreography but is beaten into oblivion by Miki’s slightly leaden obsession with nipples and navels. Again, if perhaps it had been shorter, Funky Forest could have really worked but there isn’t enough overarching structure or an emotional centre to really catch on to, unless you find it uproariously funny. And that running time! Third Window have released some excellent shorter films, Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes and Killing come immediately to mind, and these films understand the power of being concise. As for Warped Forest, if I am honest I was not a fan, as it was so painfully laboured. It couldn’t even get a laugh out of a teenage girl carrying a penis-rifle. Sometimes the images are pleasing to look at, but it is shot in forest locations where you’d struggle for them to look ugly. And the effects work is great, really brilliantly done.
For all I couldn’t get fully behind Funky Forest I do think it will find its audience, though I am suspicious of some of Miki’s entries in it. Or maybe I was having a bad day. Because some of it works beautifully in isolation to the point where it felt like it should have been five thirty-minute TV comedies rather than a film. Perhaps too these are films that work best with an audience in an auditorium. Humour, more often as not, is at its most effective and infectious when you feel the excitement of those around you. A bit like going to see stand-up comedy.
When it comes to the scoring below: add points for Funky Forest, detract points for Warped Forest.
Review copy courtesy of Third Window Films.
Never get in the way of a girl and her penis gun!