All Too Real: The Films of Shinji Sômai

Sômai's first North American retrospective highlights his fierce individualism, a fantastical threshold between two eras of Japanese cinema.
Patrick Preziosi

Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985).

The opening shot of Shinji Sômai’s Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985) is 14 minutes long, probing an oneiric palace of artifice. The camera surveys a miniaturized series of homes that represent different stages in the life of an orphan, marching from storybook mistreatment meted out by her foster family, to a questionable attachment to an unorthodox—though caring—father figure, who relieves the toil foisted upon her. The snow globe ambiance provides a sandbox for Sômai’s storied formalism, the camera and the set engaged in a symbiotic give-and-take, filling in blanks when one or the other is totally spent. Events occur at an unsteady clip; years are skipped over with little more than a panning motion. But then, this climate of impressionistic memory is ruptured: a smash cut reintroduces Iori (Yuki Saito), now a perilously carefree teenager, suspended over the all-too-real pavement as she hangs off the back of a motorcycle.

Sômai is still strangely undervalued stateside—perhaps his early death at 53 in 2001 is a factor; to break into the international market, a consistent stream of new releases encourages a re/acquaintance with past work. Nevertheless, he is a crucial figure, maintaining an equally fierce and inviting individuality within a decaying studio system. He also presaged the next filmmaking generation’s burgeoning, independent ethos, wherein directors could pick and choose from innumerable combinations of genre and style. His preoccupation with youth and malaise signaled the coming work of such contemporary figures as Hirokazu Koreeda, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and even Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The aforementioned cut in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion embodies this threshold between two eras, puncturing the film’s studio-bound guile with locational realism.

It should be noted that Sômai’s films, from the pinku-adjacent Love Hotel (1985), to the purely purple big-city fantasia Luminous Woman (1987), to the muted intergenerational family drama of Wait and See (1998), aren’t constructed as a conscious series of prolonged camera movements, like the work of Miklós Jancsó or Béla Tarr. As Hamaguchi writes in his press notes for New York’s Japan Society’s Sômai retrospective, the first in North America, neither Orson Welles nor Theo Angelopoulos are productive comparisons either, as Sômai’s camera “ventured out into a time and space that only existed then and there.” Rather, Sômai’s long takes organically emerge from their parent films, offering spaces where multiple genre signifiers can swirl together. Though these shots skirt the ostentatious, they are central to the narrative at hand. Since his films aren’t bound to arid plains or industrial wastelands, Sômai also employs conventional techniques and shot/reverse-shot rhythms to keep abreast of the bustle of modern Japan. 

Love Hotel (1985).

To sustain such narrative control, Sômai avoids becoming too besotted with his visual pyrotechnics; as impressive as these long takes are, the cut holds just as much power. For instance, the opening sequence of Love Hotel burrows beneath the skin not only for its duration, frank in its depiction of sexual violence, but also for the way that it is cut and assembled. As Sômai charts a cuckolded businessman’s plot to kill both himself and an unwitting prostitute, one gets a sense of both dissociation and all-too-real immediacy, a Dostoevskian combination, considering that this initial plan is abandoned. The two kindle a Stockholm syndrome–burdened relationship that nevertheless embodies the spirit of White Nights, nighttime sojourns to the pier offering a respite from the restlessness of modern living. 

Those particular shots in Love Hotel gesture to Sômai’s commendable refusal to compartmentalize: everything colors everything else, adulthood encroaches upon youth and vice versa, crime manifests in the most mundane of settings, romantic love transcends binaries. His own creative capriciousness is employed to capture the very capriciousness of his characters therein. His durational muscularity is comparable to the icy, objective, sneakily elongated scene work of John M. Stahl or Otto Preminger, and his appetite for the destabilizing, the magical realist, and the visceral hints at an enduring Seijun Suzuki influence. Suzuki himself, as Sômai was just beginning, had commenced his Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen in 1980, Kageroza in 1981, and then Yumeji a decade later), wherein the studio-imposed dam that was already doing so poor a job of hemming in such an iconoclastic and visibly restless filmmaker finally gave way completely; these films came to fruition after being ostensibly blacklisted from the industry, years spent meeting at home with key collaborators to forge in a new direction. One could view Sômai as gluing together the fractured shards of Suzuki, keying into the possibilities of incongruousness, and how it could be a vehicle for narrative and thematic grace.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981).

One year after Zigeunerweisen comes Sômai’s second film, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981), an adaptation of Jiro Akagawa’s novel. Already flush with the spirit of adolescence and modest fantasy, Sômai embeds that incongruity into the very conceit, where schoolgirl Izumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru), through the reliable unreliability of bloodlines, inherits her father’s paltry, endangered yakuza gang. A disputed packet of heroin wreaks havoc, and the film alternates between bloodshed and conspiracy-colored bounciness in a manner akin to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a nagging sense of genuine danger flecked with caricature. Sômai’s durational gamesmanship electrifies his treatment of true spectacle, like dizzying processions of motorcycles, as well as shocking displays of intimacy, such as when Izumi offers a goodbye kiss to each of her nominal underlings, soon to be picked off one by one. The empathetic and the ludicrous don’t compete with one another; instead, they’re reshaped by Sômai’s camera. This is clinched in the opening scenes: as Izumi looks at her school from a bridge yoga pose, the camera briefly adopts her upside-down point of view; we are aligned with Izumi, no matter how topsy-turvy her trials and tribulations are.  

In his next film, P.P. Rider (1983), Sômai introduces an even wider divide between youth and the adult world, while nevertheless surveying the former’s fantastical incompatibility within the larger, unforgiving environment of the latter. The story, notably authored by Leonard and Chieko Schrader, follows summertime abandon to the extreme, as three high-schoolers pursue their bully’s kidnappers across Tokyo and Yokohama; their bully has been confused for a prominent heir, which complicates things on the yakuza’s end. The crisscrossing allegiances are even more byzantine here than in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, imposing a fairy-tale logic upon every scene—along with the genre’s prevailing themes of innocence lost, mentorship, forgiveness, et cetera. Throughout, Sômai drags the film through the dregs of the grimy, all-too-real underworld, where adults are predatory and uncaring. 

It’s also summer, though, and sweaty abandon reigns; if a spoilt high-school bully is to be kidnapped, it’s best that it happens during the longueurs of summer, heavy on the fireworks and light on the adult supervision. Sômai may wring his characters of their innocence, but he’s never cruel while doing so, endeavoring more to contextualize these kids’ place within the larger world. Their goal is a noble one, and the screen practically drips with exhaustion as those long takes roll on and on once again, a perfect complement to the three kids’ nomadic journey. Their trek finishes in a blizzard of cocaine and blood, a confluence of reliable symbols (again: encroaching adulthood, loss of innocence) so cartoonish that the trio, now a foursome with their returned bully, break out into song. Plot conventionality is sacrificed for pure, unadulterated feeling, and Sômai is well aware that younger generations are best equipped to embody such uninhibitedness. Many of Sômai’s films begin in a school setting, before gradually shedding the formalities of those locations, arriving at an intersection between realism and fantasy that’s as thorny as it is rich. 

Typhoon Club (1985).

The school isn’t always a representation of parochial generational divides in Sômai's work, however. In 1985’s Typhoon Club—the middle film of a remarkable one-year run, bookended by Love Hotel and Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion—Sômai subverts his own narratological procedures, as the school becomes the site of all the wild activity that previously spirited characters from the city center to the suburbs to the waterfront, and so on and so forth. The eponymous typhoon strands a handful of students in their school, and as the storm rages, their behavior grows more and more primal to match; suggestions of sexual violence, while never truly consummated, are nevertheless protracted and distressing. Its parental void, of all things, is comparable to Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), especially in how a lack of oversight can be connected to impulsive and damaging decisions. Sômai doesn’t throw down the long-take gauntlet as proudly as he does in other films, as the shots’ respective lengths correspond to shifts in the soundtrack, propelled by an eerie electronic thrum. The kids strip to their underwear and dance in the rain, but also fixate on their totally unremarkable math teacher (one of the film’s few liaisons to the adult world). The relationship specifics among these friends are outlined within a scene of voyeurism in which the (male) perpetrator is literally waterboarded by his (female) victims. Sômai often deromanticized the work and lives of adults, as kids invade their drudgery—Typhoon Club is an inversion. 

Earlier, I wrote that Sômai isn’t a cruel director, and that’s still true; it is important, though, to affirm that he is not adverse to documenting cruelty. The nastiness between friends and classmates in Typhoon Club, which throbs with lust, envy, and ennui, is still a reality, no matter how transportive the event of the typhoon, and its isolating fury, may be. The respective, very often unnerving, desires of these kids—some are clearly searching for sex, one absconds to Tokyo, one commits suicide—speak to Sômai’s ability to pinpoint exactly where subjective and/or interior impulses buoys one’s comportment. And in turn, he unflinchingly records the intervals in which the illusory overtakes, even infects, its beholder. Typhoon Club is a compendium of enabling acts, demarcating multiple realities from these multiple fantasies. The consequences of these actions are deeply felt, though ostensibly lightened only by one of the most gleefully inappropriate sight gags of the last couple of decades (and more) of cinema. The film ends with a nominally normal walk to school on the following Monday: the recently waterboarded student says to his female counterpart, fresh from her subtly dangerous, impromptu trip to Tokyo, “You’ve grown.” Coming after everything that preceded it, this sounds something like a threat. 

Typhoon Club also boasts one of Sômai’s more pronounced magical-realist wrinkles. Rie (Youki Kudoh), walking alone down an alley in rainy Tokyo, finds her path momentarily obstructed by a couple in kabuki makeup, wrapped together and playing the ocarina, moving like a top in slow-motion across the screen. It’s a flourish of great trust, theatrical in presentation, novelistic in texture, recalling the the wraith-populated labyrinths of Kobo Abe, or the malleable realities of César Aira, and even the unexplained motif of the “bright woodwind players…walking along the sides of the road,” from Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, a more tasteful, though nevertheless similar portrait of hallucinatory youth. Later, in Luminous Woman, one of Sômai’s rarer “adult” films, a kabuki performer is central to the film’s atmosphere of big city malaise. 

Tokyo Heaven (1990).

Sômai’s fascination with “hallucinatory youth” distinguishes both the sugary pop-purgatory of Tokyo Heaven (1990) and the clear-eyed, comparatively grounded Moving (1993). The former begins within the cynical vernacular of the teen-idol machine that had made Sailor Suit and Machine Gun’s star, Yakushimaru, such a prominent figure only nine years prior. A young, somewhat aloof model, Yuu (Riho Makise), is practically pimped out by one of her handlers, Fumio (Kiichi Nakai), to their shared, lecherous boss, played with villainous drooping lips by Tsurube Shofukutei. Avoiding his advances, Yuu steps out into traffic, and is killed. Suddenly, she’s in a storybook meadow, saddled with a guardian who explains that she’s in the anteroom to heaven—once again played by Shofukutei, in an impressive turn of double duty; as this angel explains, the deceased’s last registered image is then adopted as his own form, a measure that is ostensibly comforting to those who’ve just passed away. Given the chance to return to the world of the living, Yuu pulls a fast one, asking to return as an image on a billboard (the rule is: you cannot return to Earth as yourself), but it’s her own face on the advertisement!

Such are the grounds for shenanigans aplenty, but, this being Sômai, there’s a nagging desperation at play. While there’s a sense of relief as Yuu returns to the corporeal world, this turn of events is also crudely twined with ideas of revenge and comeuppance. There’s also the heartbreaking fact that if Yuu were to suddenly return, especially so soon after her burial, it would only rattle her family more. In a sequence where various emotions mingle and bubble over within a single shot, Yuu returns to her family’s home, and is barred entry past the foyer by Shofukutei’s “angel,” whose counterpart is meanwhile inside, dodging all blame. When the angel embraces Yuu to physically stop her, Sômai’s camera suddenly rushes in from a distance, framing her in  the crook of his shoulder; she mutters that she wishes this otherworldly guardian could’ve taken on any other form. Why does he have to look like the man responsible for her death?

That resounding why is the crux of Moving, a question the young Renko (Tomoko Tabata) frequently poses to her recently divorced parents. Like Tokyo Heaven, Moving folds some nominal humor into its conceit—a young girl concocts various methods of getting her parents back together—but the film is too jagged, too monomaniacal, for that intimation of lightheartedness to last for long. The apotheosis of Sômai’s work with young actors, the film belongs to that vaunted echelon that also houses Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue (1968) and Nils Malmros’s Tree of Knowledge, where what’s achieved feels impossible without at least some documentary interpolation. Yet, Sômai doesn’t fully penetrate Renko’s interiority, and the film operates with an expert modicum of distance. The long takes affirm the reasonability of her real-time decisions, while obfuscating the end goal; it’s quite possible Renko herself doesn’t exactly know what’ll count as a success, save for a family reunion without any hesitation. In the last act, Renko’s attempt to recreate a past vacation begets her retreat into the surrounding mountain landscape, which, in and of itself, begets a further retreat into the memory of that past vacation; Sômai’s capacity for invention manifests in Renko watching her own memory of that idyllic occasion, where she and her parents weren’t threatened by any sort of separation. It’s a more subtle evocation of the mind palace of Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion or the fitful nonlinearity of Typhoon Club, coming so late in the film that it can only be an agent of closure. 

In Luminous Woman, the realism-to-surrealism ratio is more skewed toward the latter than anywhere else in Sômai’s filmography; usually, the films begin within an idiom of earthbound drama, before drifting away from that source. In its saturated purples, tawdry underworld, and off-kilter visual effects, there is no real-world analog for the majority of the film. That is, until the protagonist’s love interest and the son of his first friend in Tokyo, now deceased, stand on a jetty, buffeted by the crashing, towering waves. It’s a moment of unencumbered freedom that is also quite dangerous, even ill-advised. But that’s how Sômai captures the errancy of life with his camera, cognizant of how closely associated danger and freedom can be. Sômai invites the viewer to take their time in contextualizing what initially may seem incongruous or haphazard or precarious or threatening. In turn, the characters themselves are able to catalog their behaviors, to realize their internal distresses and their desires, as encapsulated by that climactic scene in Moving. These characters may realize the compromises that have to be made to endure, but Sômai’s style refuses to capitulate to anything but its creator. 

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