Sunday, October 3, 2010

REVIEW: Carnival in the Night

闇のカーニバル (Yami no kanibari)

Released: 1982

Masashi Yamamoto

Kumiko Ota
Akemi Edo
Michiro Endo
Masashi Yamamoto

Running time: 118 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

The first image that appears is a crosswalk that fills the screen like a giant set of crosshairs. The camera goes to street level, where it captures the bustling streets of Tokyo. As it passes before the crowds of people, some of them look directly into the lens. A disorienting barrage of music and voices from various advertisements flood the soundtrack, eventually becoming increasingly distorted. The sequence soon shifts into night, showing grainy footage of lit-up corridors and storefronts and trash-strewn alleyways. In a dark, claustrophobic room, a band begins performing to a sparse audience of groggy-looking hangers-on. As a woman sings into the microphone, the film’s opening titles appear.

So begins "Carnival in the Night," an early film from Masashi Yamamoto, who directed the counterculture-centered works "Robinson’s Garden" (1987) and "Junk Food" (1997). The singing woman is Kumiko Ota and the closest thing to a main character viewers will get. After the performance, she quits her band and picks up her young son from a daycare. Later, she meets with her ex-husband and leaves the child with him. An excellent piece on the film by Johannes Schönherr at Midnight Eye reveals that Kumiko (called Kumi throughout the film) is her real name, and her real son and ex-husband in fact appear as themselves. Such facts are perhaps not so surprising when you actually watch the film, as its look is very much that of a rough, handheld, zero-budget documentary. While there are fictional segments to the film, very seldom does anything ever feel scripted or simulated, giving the strong impression that Yamamoto simply picked up the first 16mm camera he could find and set off into the streets to record the sketchier denizens and activities of the Tokyo underground. Notably, the audible purring sound of the camera itself can frequently be heard on the soundtrack. Besides Kumi, prominent figures featured throughout "Carnival in the Night" include a dangerous young man named Papou, a girl who captures ravens and tries to sell them to passers-by and a man who draws extremely complex maps of Shinjuku as part of a deranged plan to blow up the entire neighborhood.

Even though the ripples of influence made by Jean-Luc Godard’s "Breathless" stretch far and wide throughout the film world, "Carnival in the Night" perhaps does the single best job of emulating that revolutionary text’s in-the-moment, anything-goes aesthetic. Just as Godard’s film has been described by its maker as “a documentary about Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg,” so too could Yamamoto’s film be called a documentary on Kumi and the ecosystem of characters that surrounds her, comprised of a hodgepodge of strange details and occurrences. Early in the film, Kumi reads a bedtime story to her son, the colorful illustrations and soothing lullaby music of the sequence offering a rare moment of peace and innocence. Not too long afterwards, Kumi dons dark glasses and applies lipstick, transforming herself for the night ahead just as the film itself changes to black-and-white. She visits the would-be bomber in the machine-filled basement where he works and borrows a gun from him, later testing it out by shooting a phone booth window. She visits a man and lies on the floor of his apartment in her underwear in a long passage that is not too distant from the famous portion of Breathless set in Seberg’s room. Kumi is at the center of several more remarkable scenes, including a brief encounter on the streets with a friend of hers named Ruby who tells her an amusing anecdote; a dizzying, sweat-stained dance to a funk song in a gay bar and a grisly moment in a junkyard after she is assaulted by a gang of young men.

Those are just some of the many, many events that "Carnival in the Night" is packed to the brim with. Others include Papou’s unsettling outbursts of violence, the raven girl’s infiltration of a cremation facility and a homoerotic encounter that results in an oddly moving, improvised funeral ceremony. There are several more elements that pass before Yamamoto’s unflinching gaze, all surely best left to be discovered by the unsuspecting viewer. The experience provided by "Carnival in the Night" is frequently jarring, always surprising and, given the down-and-dirty corners of Tokyo that it probes, will likely make you want to take a shower after it ends. But as far as fresh, spontaneous, verité-style filmmaking goes, it is an unparalleled treat.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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