Starring: Yuriko Yoshitaka Kengo Kora Arata Tatsuya Fujiwara Toshiaki Karasawa
Running time: 123 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
With her designer clothes, teased chestnut dyed hair and coquettish attitude the last words that you'd use to describe Liu (short for her favorite luxury brand, Louis Vuitton) is edgy. In fact her best friend refers to Liu as a "bimbo", the kind of girl who you see teetering on high heels and wearing mini-skirts in the shopping plazas and night clubs of most major Japanese cities. It's in one of these night clubs, though, that Liu meets Ama (short for Amadeus), a mohawked and tattooed punk who's got enough studs and piercings in him to set off ten airport metal detectors. Liu falls for Ama's strangely sweet pick up technique of showing her his tongue that's been split like a forked snake's tongue. They leave the club together, have sex and then shortly thereafter become the most unlikely couple walking the streets. It's through Ama that Liu is introduced to Shiba, the quiet but menacing owner of a tattoo and piercing parlour where Liu, in a moment fueled by boredom and rebellion, gets her tongue pierced; but Liu wants more. She becomes obsessed with the pain of piercing, tattooing and the bodily transformation that this pain offers. She wants her tongue split like Ama's. She wants a tattoo designed by Shiba. Soon the three of them have slipped down the rabbit hole together, exploring the limits of physical and emotional endurance through booze, sex, explosive bursts of violence, pain and body modification.
Based on the 2003 Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by literary wunderkind Hitomi Kanehara and brought to the screen by Yukio Ninagawa, one of Japan's most respected theatrical directors, "Snakes and Earrings" follows firmly in the tradition of films like Shunji Iwai's "All About Lily Chou-Chou" or Ryo Nakajima's "This World of Ours" that attempt to get to the heart of the ennui, anger, and innocence of Japanese youth. Ninagawa's "Snakes and Earrings" doesn't deliver when it comes to the emotional gut punch of these two films, but it does make some very interesting and affecting aesthetic choices that run opposite to its closest cinematic relative, Shinya Tsukamoto's 1995 film "Tokyo Fist". Although "Fist" was on the surface a boxing film at its core it and "Snakes and Earrings" are uncannily alike: a love triangle of two men and one woman forms not based on love or lust, but on an obsession with pain and bodily transformation. While "Fist" pummeled the audience with fast cuts, jarring visuals and a soundtrack that felt as if it was beating you up, techniques employed in film after film in order to appeal to the youth market, Ninagawa's film takes the exact opposite approach. From the very first nearly silent shot that pans across images of body builders, cosmetic ads and fire projected on Shibuya Crossing's electronic billboards (a genius moment in my estimation) Ninagawa dials down the mood of his film. The shots flow slowly and easily into each other, the music is muted and lyrical, and he continually uses light and shadow like a painter to accentuate the bodies of Liu, Ama and Shiba that act as bare canvas for the tattoos and piercings that they use to enhance them.
This mood extends into what I felt was the most successful performance in the film. Arata, an actor whose career, from Hirokazu Kore-eda's "After Life" through Fumihiko Sori's "Ping Pong", has been marked by understated and honest performances, imbues Shiba with a wonderful sense of duplicity: one one hand gentle and methodical, while on the other a violent sadist who believes himself to be "the descendant of God". It wouldn't be correct to call Shiba a villain, but Arata's choice of giving the character less instead of more gives him the depth and menace of the great cinematic bad guys. Sadly this depth doesn't carry over to Liu (Yuriko Yoshitaka) and Ama (Kengo Kora). Ama is basically a big dopey boy, but besides one very frightening moment of violence Kora doesn't give his character any more detail. Then there is the problem of "Snakes and Earrings" main character. Whether it was due to the original novel or Ninagawa's handling of the source material we're left with too many "whys" when it comes to Liu. Why exactly is she so drawn to pain, body modification and tattooing in the first place? Why does she cover up not only for Ama's violent/ criminal acts, but for Shiba's as well even when she believes herself to be in danger? Why does her new found empowerment suddenly take a 180 into suicidal alcoholism? Hints to her motivations would have turned "Snakes and Earrings" into one of the strongest films of 2008, but instead it ends up being a gorgeously crafted, but dramatically flawed work.