Here is an odd, not entirely successful, but still fascinating project derived from the work of a comic artist of key importance in Japan, although all but unknown in the West. Teruo Ishii's Neji-shiki — or Screwed, as it's been localized — adapts Yoshiharu Tsuge's surreal milestone of comics into a movie that's part confessional autobiography (as much of Tsuge's work was), part moon-in-the-gutter fantasy, and part all-out headtrip. It's also one of the few legitimate ways to experience Tsuge's work in English, although it leaves you hungry to experience Tsuge's work as it actually was, rather than how it was filtered through director Ishii's pulp-surrealist sensibilities.
From Garo to ero-guro
Let's start with the names involved. Yoshiharu Tsuge became known in the Fifties and Sixties as a comic artist in the world of kashibon, or books specifically sold to rental outlets, entertainment by and for working-class folks. The style of comics he did fell under the rubric gekiga — "dramatic pictures", stories with bleak subject matter, as opposed to the more playful and escapist work sold with the label manga. Tsuge struggled to make ends meet but eventually found an audience by way of Garo, the avant-garde comics journal that also featured the likes of the equally gritty Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi's work has become available in English thanks to the good graces of Drawn & Quarterly, but Tsuge's remains unseen save for a handful of pieces translated here and there.
One of Tsuge's few pieces that did make it into English, if only provisionally, was the one he published in Garo in 1967, "Neji-shiki" — "Screw Style", or "Screw Ceremony", depending on the reading. A surreal work of two dozen pages, it was based on a dream Tsuge had while dozing on a rooftop, and it is pure dream logic from beginning to end. It also seemed to have arrived the right time, as it became a signifying moment for underground Japanese comics, and made Tsuge into something of a counter-culture figure. If a film were to have been made from it, it would have been at most a short subject; it's hard to see how the material could run more than twenty minutes.
Enter another cult figure from Japan: director Teruo Ishii. A disciple of legendary director Mikio Naruse, he went over the years from the tokusatsu kiddie adventure series Super Giant to splashy, lurid gangsters-and-bad-girls stories, eventually becoming a key name in "ero-guro." That mix of sexuality, sadism, perversion, seediness, violence, and out-and-out weirdness had first taken root in the Taishō Era of the 1920s by way of authors like mystery/crime/thriller mastermind Edogawa Rampo, but eventually found its way into comics and film, and became a permanent fixture of Japan's pop culture to the present day.
Ishii was one of ero-guro's prime practitioners, with titles like Horrors of Malformed Men, Blind Woman's Curse, and Shogun's Joys of Torture — disreputable stuff to audiences then, but easier to see today as one of the key precursors to the nothing-succeeds-like-excess filmmaking of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. With Screwed, Ishii was tackling Tsuge's brooding world not for the first time but the second — he'd already made a film of Tsuge's Master of the Gensenkan Inn in 1993. In 1998, he flung another bucket down into Tsuge's well; he snagged rising star Tadanobu Asano, mixed together Tsuge's stories with his own darkly freewheeling sensibilities, and out came Screwed.
Down and out in Tokyo and beyond
Those familiar with anything from Ishii's catalog will feel right at home in the opening credits, where a bevy of grotesques cavort on the beach like outtakes from Horrors of Malformed Men. This Bruegel-esque scene is in fact one of the drawings being created by the movie's Yoshiharu Tsuge surrogate, as played by Tadanobu Asano (the credits call him "Tsube"), but he tears it up in disgust when he realizes stuff like this isn't going to put bread on the table. His girlfriend, Kuniko (Miki Fujitani, the voice of Rurouni Kenshin's Kaoru), finds a steady job cooking in a worker's dorm, but there's no room for him there and he has to crash with his friend Kimoto (Kazuhiko Kanayama), who does things like grope Tsube in his sleep.
Much of the story that unfolds is episodic and plotless, less about what Tsube accomplishes than about how he feels about it. Being passive and withdrawn, he accomplishes very little anyway; he mostly observes and nurses resentments. (It helps that Asano is a natural at playing such shy, inward types: he doesn't need to perform, just embody.) When Tsube becomes convinced Kuniko is sleeping with another man, a doltish sort from the worker's dorm, he downs sleeping pills and ends up in the hospital. There, he languishes for days, and when he wakes up he urinates so vigorously he almost scares off the staff.
The vast majority of what's on Tsube's mind is sex — specifically, him not getting any, or only getting it on terms that he doesn't want. A trip to the countryside lands Tsube in a little inn, where the hostess makes advances on him. It's not that he doesn't want the attention — he's just uneasy about the nature of it, since she's a simple-minded sort who longs for things like a new pair of shoes. Later that night, he witnesses in dismay as she allows herself to be groped by a couple of bawds who've promised her just that in exchange for some fun. In a seaside town, he entertains a dalliance with a lonely shopowner who's clearly interested in him sexually, and maybe even for more than that. He flirts with the idea of staying there, settling down, having a life with her, but he leaves. A year later, when he wanders back in again, she doesn't even recognize him — but is that because she's consciously spurning him, or because she was just as indifferent to the whole affair as he was?
Ishii the outlandish, Tsuge the unseen
Having all these segments focusing on Tsube's longings is the lead-up to the climax, an almost panel-for-panel reproduction of the original "Neji-shiki" manga on film. In it, Tsube imagines himself at the seaside, where the sting of a jellyfish tears open his arm and severs a blood vessel. With one hand cupped over the wound to keep the cut ends together, he wanders through a landscape desperately seeking a doctor, but everyone he meets is either indifferent, inscrutable, evasive, or just plain strange. He runs into, among other things, a candy factory run by a mother figure, a train (obviously and deliberately a model) that somehow never reaches the next station, and — finally — a visit to a female doctor that begins in seduction and ends with some very curious improvised surgery. All his longing — both the Tsube of the dream and the waking Tsube — has finally found a willing recipient, but not in the way either he or we would have anticipated.
It's all very much a product of its moment in time — very Freudian, very trippy, very male-centered and male-gaze. It also doesn't feel like something that most fans of Ishii in the West would associate with him, and that I attribute in part to the way only a slice of Ishii's work has made it into translation, or at least garnered significant attention. Neji-shiki comes off like something from under the banner of the avant-garde Art Theatre Guild, the groundbreaking and envelope-pushing production company that became identified with Japan's '60s and '70s counterculture. The raving blurb about Ishii from Quentin Tarantino, on the DVD cover, seems like a good hint as to which direction Ishii's fans in the West are believed to be coming from, but I suspect those who come to this from, say, Ishii's gangster-film work with Ken Takakura are going to be scratching their heads.
Neji-shiki works best when Ishii just stands back and channels Tsuge — not just the surreal Tsuge that dominates the entire last fifth of the film or so, which is where Ishii clearly feels most at hime, but also the sad Tsuge, the lonely Tsuge, the heartbroken Tsuge. Here, even when Ishii is being flashy or indulgent, it works: when the Tsuge-surrogate enjoys (if that's the word) mercenary sex with the lonely and bored shopkeeper, Ishii cuts between their frenzy in bed and the rain drilling furiously into the pavement outside. And I mentioned the lurid opening scene, although I confess it's the urination scene in the hospital bathroom that stood out most as a signature moment on Ishii's part. It's low slapstick of a kind that the director seems right at home with — but a) it goes on until all its comic timing is ruined, and b) it comes off an Ishii moment, not a Tsuge moment.
It's bad enough that the majority of Tsuge's work remains unavailable to Western audiences, save for this movie. It's even worse that the movie's DVD edition is such a cock-up, an awful telecine apparently zoomed up from a 4:3 letterboxed transfer. Maybe Ishii's cinematography was originally this hazy and amber-hued, but here it just looks like someone forgot to wipe off the lens. Synapse Films created this version for the U.S. market, and it's uncharacteristically poor work for a company that has long prided itself on delivering the best possible version of movies that typically didn't get quality presentations, if they got any presentations at all. But there's been no newer version from Japan, and definitely no other version with English subtitles. A better way to appreciate Tsuge's work, and especially this movie, will just have to wait for another day.