Reviewed by Chris MaGee
In some unspecified future there exists Yentown, slums that surround Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya or any large Japanese city (or all Japanese cities for that matter). It’s in these shanty towns that fortune seekers from all over Asia and some from around the world come seeking the all mighty yen. From setting up small shops and stalls to trading in grey market goods to more lucrative, but illegal and dangerous pursuits these outsiders come like the old prospectors in the days of the gold rush to make as much money as they can and then either return home or reinvent themselves in a prosperous new land. As the preamble in Shunji Iwai’s 1996 epic “Swallowtail Butterly” explains the residents of Yentown become synonymous with it, so that the Japanese refer to them as “Yentowns”. Our eyes and ears into this world is one Yentown, a nameless teenage girl who after her mother dies is left alone not only to seek out those mighty yen, but to find out who she is and what she will become.
Shunji Iwai takes us on a sweeping journey through this dream or nightmare of Japan’s possible future. In a country that has one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world, where one in three people will be over 65 by the year 2025 there is real concern that the bottom will eventually fall out of Japan’s health care system, work force and economy. Debate has been waging for the past few years as to whether the miniscule number of foreigners living in Japan (roughly 1.6% of the population) should be allowed to increase to stave off this coming crisis. The vision of an influx of foreigners chasing after a world of opportunity isn’t that far fetched. At the same time the darkness, crime, and violence that fills the world of “Swallowtail Butterfly” plays directly into the paranoia that if more “gaijin” are let into the country safety and order will disappear.
Our nameless heroine doesn’t encounter much safety or order. Gangs of homeless children, junkies, gangsters; she finds Yentown to be a truly lawless frontier; that is until our heroine falls into an unlikely family consisting of a pair of Chinese junk dealers, a punch drunk American boxer, a British music promoter and a hooker with a heart of gold and a kick ass rock voice named Glico (played by Japanese pop star Chara). It’s from this, the film’s second heroine that our girl gets her name, Ageha or “Swallowtail Butterfly”, and it’s through Glico that the whole group falls into a dangerous cat and mouse with the Hong Kong Triads over a cassette tape of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” that is cut out of a yakuza’s stomach. This tape can insure that any Yentown will be able to literally make as much money as they want.
I have to applaud Iwai for having the guts to make such a sweeping film made up of American, Hong Kong and Japanese actors. The world presented seems like a true to life Interzone. For the first half of the film I felt as if I were watching a pretty decent adaptation of a William Gibson story. There simply haven’t been many films made either in Japan or around the world that have been this ambitious, but it’s this ambition and Iwai’s background in music videos that for me threatens to derail “Swallowtail Butterfly” in its second half.
When the plot veers off from the gangsters chasing after their counterfeiting tape to a rags to riches rock and roll story I had to shake my head. What for me had been a really interesting piece of speculative filmmaking turned into an Asian version of “The Commitments”. Why do we need x-amount of musical numbers to slow things down to a halt? Also, the performances are impeded by the actors sometimes speaking in languages that they’re obviously not familiar with. If the musical sub-plot had been left on the editing room floor “Swallowtail Butterfly” could have been a truly groundbreaking film, but as it stands Iwai has given us a deeply flawed, but still compelling addition to the dystopian future science fiction genre.