Friday, August 7, 2009

REVIEW: Hottentot Apron: A Sketch

ホッテントットエプロン – スケッチ
(Hottentotto epuron – Sukecchi nana sato)

Released: 2006

Kei Shirichi

Hiroko Akune

Aichi Arts Center

Running time: 70 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

While everything from yakuza eiga, kaiju monster movies, and chanbara action have been recycled, repackaged, re-imagined as grist for the post-modern mill with directors like Takashi Miike, Minoru Kawasaki and Kaz Kiriya bringing us their contemporary visions of these various genres one important aspect of Japanese cinema is increasingly in danger of slipping into obscurity. That genre, if we can call it that, is experimental film. While the influence of the avant garde extends right back to the very beginnings of Japanese cinema, with the German Expressionist films of F. W. Murnau and Robert Wiene being embraced by directors like Teinosuke Kinugasa with his 1926 film "A Page of Madness", it wasn't until the 1960's when anything like a consistent experimental movement came into existence. Film pioneers like Shuji Terayama, Toshio Matsumoto, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Takahiko Iimura, Susumu Hani, Hiroshi Teshigahara and American expat author and film historian Donald Richie would begin producing work that pushed the envelope and placed image and ideas above narrative. Some of these filmmakers, like Teshigahara and Obayashi, would go onto success in the mainstream while others would languish in obscurity; but currently there are very few filmmakers in Japan who either reference those heady days of 60's experimentation or carry the tradition through to the present day. One filmmaker who has done that is Kei Shichiri with his 2006 film "Hottentot Apron: A Sketch".

To start out with a description of the plot of "Hottentot Apron" would be a bit misleading to uninitiated audiences, but I'll give it a fighting try - A young woman, played by Hiroko Akune (Godzilla: Final Wars, Tokyo Novel) works as a waitress in a diner. Her relationship with her boyfriend is unfulfilling and to further complicate things she is obsessed with a large hemangioma, or benign vascular tumor, on her hip (one that we actually never see). One day after she encounters a mysterious man wearing a hood and playing a clarinet she discover a small shack built out of cardboard. She crawls into it and suddenly we are transported to this young woman's interior world, a place where she meets her own doppelgänger in the form of a large doll who bears the same birthmark on her hip. As I said, the idea of "Hottentot Apron" having anything close to a traditional plot would mislead audiences and do a gross injustice to the film. This is an artistic animal of a different sort, one that directly links to the non-narrative, experimental filmmaking traditions of the 1960's, but one that enchants and beguils rather than confounds and distances like some of its forebears did.

With "Hottentot Apron" Shichiri, along with screenwriter Minori Shinsaku, creates an experience closer akin to a modern dance or butoh performance. Akune's performance is one based on physicality and movement as she explores this alternate reality without the use of dialogue. This analogy to a dance performance is clear when you realize that many screenings of "Hottentot Apron" are accompanied with live musical accompaniment, further reinforcing its ties to performance-based art. The emotional arch of Akune's character then becomes the narrative skeleton of the film and the symbology that Shichiri incorporates become signposts to this young woman's inner journey. Of course there is the aforementioned doll, but Shichiri and Shinsaku also weave in the image of a glass vase, red yarn, cardboard and clay whose colours and textures are captured by cinematographer Tetsuya Takahashi in some of the most awe-inspiring footage I've seen in a long, long time. No, this isn't the politically and idealogically charged experimental cinema of Terayama or Matsumoto. It's obvious that Shichiri is going for an exploration of a more personal, feminine kind with these images. The title itself, a term that refers to elongated labia, is a dead giveaway of that, and sometimes the imagery gets a bit too referential with the clarinet playing man and Akune gorging herself on pomegranates being a direct nod to Greco-Roman myths of travels to the underworld and some definite fairy tale elements thrown in, but there's enough good here that these missteps can easily be forgiven.

For moviegoers looking to be told a story "Hottentot Apron" might well disappoint, but for the adventurous out there its mix of dance, theatre, visual art and its strong ties to Japan's experimental cinema will reward them with 70 minutes of some of the most lush and mysterious filmmaking out there today. It may even whet their appetites for some of Japan's earlier experimental pioneers. Let's hope so.

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