You have to be careful when you enter the world of short filmmaker Yoshihiro Ito. By day he makes medical documentaries, but in his off hours Ito surrenders to his most surreal artistic whims, shooting short films in raw 8 and 16mm as if these visions were being captured through the gauze of sleep-filled eyes. This is a world with its own rules and logic, mostly loopy and tangential dream logic, hints of eroticism and healthy doses of wicked humour, but there is a certain amount of jeopardy involved in these films, both for the moviegoer and a movie reviewer like myself. Let me explain.
First off, average moviegoers looking for easy narratives in "Vortex & Others: 5 Short Films by Yoshihiro Ito" might be a tad confused. Not to say that the basic narrative lines of each of the films shot between 2001 and 2008 aren't for the most part simple because they are... it just depends on how you explain them. In a film like "Wife's Knife" a terrified husband must flee his home after suspecting his wife is harbouring some dark plot against him, while the film "Imaginary Lines" tells the story of a love triangle between an exotic dancer and two men. Explained in this way one could expect pretty straightforward if emotionally juicy experiences, but these simple narratives aren't the whole story, not by a long shot. With the latter film the two men that the exotic dancer is involved with may very well be dead, or figments of her imagination. No one can see them except her and they often refer to the life they shared with the woman in past tense. But are these men dead? Are they figments of this woman's imagination, or could it be the other way around? In the case of "Wife's Knife" the sinister plot that this man so fears is that his wife plans to cook mackerel for dinner... or is it? What does that knowing smirk on her face actually indicate when she chirps on about the sale in mackerel at the grocery store? And what exactly is that tasty little mackerel whispering to the husband?
Faced with these narrative and cinematic riddles audiences impatient audiences might tire themselves out trying to interpret the films as if they were dreams, or they may look to film reviewers to do it for them. There's that jeopardy I spoke of, because to try and reduce "Vortex & Others" into easy metaphors would be a huge injustice to these singular works. A film like "Non-Intervention Game" sees a young Western man walking through Shibuya when he comes across an ashen-looking Japanese woman who is in danger of being trampled under foot by a crowd of pedestrians. His uncertainty as to whether or not he should intervene could be seen as crystallization of urban alienation, and the absurd ending could be seen as a symbol of Westerners' fears about the East. Or not. Over analyzing Ito's films would be criminal, as would discussing the finer plot points in a review like this. Surprise and a certain amount of confusion are the real joy of these films, and to take that away would take so much away from the viewing experience.
What I find so wonderful about Ito's films are just how rich the skewed logic and ambiguity makes them. In films like "Umeshinju (Plum Double Suicide)" about a man and woman who try and commit suicide without the sue of their arms, but end up falling in love in the process, or "Vortex" in which a film director is haunted by a beautiful muse while fending off a spying photographer, you have everything that cinema should have - romance and beautiful women (one truly beautiful woman in the form of actress Natsumi Seto who plays the muse in "Vortex" and the wife in "Wife's Knife"), mystery, pathos, unforgettable images and even a bit of physical comedy - it's just that Ito hasn't assembled them in the formulaic way we are used to seeing them. Name dropping filmmakers like David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Hal Hartley and Ito's countryman Seijun Suzuki might give some of you an idea of what perils and delights "Vortex & Others" has in store for viewers, but I think that approaching these films like wonderful half-remembered dreams that you scramble to jot down first thing in the morning is the very best approach.