Around the turn of the millennium, after his early (cyber)punk/body horror exploits, Shinya Tsukamoto was busy experimenting. He was trying to find a new direction in which he would push his oeuvre. With films like Soseji and Vital he explored different alterations of his trademark style, Rokugatsu no Hebi (A Snake of June) belongs in that same list of films. The result is another vintage Tsukamoto that sits proudly amongst his other gems, though just a little different from the ones that came before.
Even though there's a clear constant in the way Shinya Tsukamoto (Haze, Nightmare Detective 2, Kotoko, Tetsuo: Bullet Man) makes films, his earlier work is a lot rawer and harsher. Films like Tetsuo, Bullet Ballet and Tokyo Ken are all beautiful in their own right, but not in a traditional sense of the word. It's a grittier version of beauty, mixing body horror, urban landscapes and a frantic drive to create something explosive.
That frantic drive is still very much alive in Rokugatsu no Hebi, but there are softer, more humane themes present too. The film's not just about deformities and ugliness, it's also about traditional beauty and the human body. Rokugatsu no Hebi is a nifty take on Tsukamoto's fascination with body horror, leaving mutations and fantastical weirdness out of the picture for a change, substituting them with questions about health, femininity and intimate relationships.
The film follows Rinko, a woman who's slowly grown apart from her husband. She works for a mental hotline and helps people who are thinking about ending their lives. One day a patient gets hold of her home number and starts stalking her. While at first she feels threatened by his attention, he unearths something in her that she had long considered dead. When not long after she gets diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening disease, Rinko has to rethink the life she's been leading.
Even though the the 1.37:1 ratio is somewhat functional (considering the central role traditional photography plays in this film), I'll never be a fan. Still, Tsukamoto's energetic camera work, strong shadow play and razor-sharp editing skills make up for that. The fact that the entire film is drenched in a cold-blue hue only adds to the atmosphere. Rokugatsu no Hebi is a stunning-looking film, though you wouldn't expect anything else from the man.
Long-time collaborator Chu Ishikawa is back to handle the soundtrack. While his signature style is still present, the harsher, more industrial sounds that characterized his earlier collaborations have made room for dreamier, more ethereal-sounding melodies. Once again images and sound combine to make a very tight whole, seemingly creating atmosphere out of thin air. Ishikawa is a perfect composer for Tsukamoto's films and once again his work doesn't disappoint.
While the film has some interesting cameos (Tomorowo Taguchi, Susumu Terajima) and secondary characters (Shinya Tsukamoto himself), the two leads just aren't as convincing. Yuji Kotari in particular has a few awkward moments as Rinko's husband. Asuka Kurosawa does a slightly better job as Rinko, but she too lacks the true conviction to bring her character to life. Though extreme realism has never been a part of Tsukamoto's characters, never before were they as stilted as here.
Rokugatsu no Hebi is the first film for Tsukamoto to focus on the female body. Rather than turn it into a true freak show, the film's about sexuality, disease and its impact on femininity. The climax comes a little early and the aftermath drags just a little, but considering the film's short running time (77 minutes only) that's hardly an issue.
Tsukamoto went through his own transformation when the previous millennium ended, Rokugatsu no Hebi is one of the films that illustrates that pretty well. It's still a vintage Tsukamoto though, with extrovert visuals, a superb soundtrack and a strong focus on the human body, but underneath there's a layer of humanity that wasn't really present before. Watching this should be a no-brainer for Tsukamoto fans, others would probably do best to check out one of his other films first.