Hysteric Betty (2020) by Iori Kedakai

A story of female liberation starring writer-director Iori Kedakai. 30 year old Iori (Kedakai) is picked up by a fashion scout, Tomiyoshi (Tatsuya Nakayama), on a visit to Tokyo, who convinces the shy Iori to take some revealing photographs. He convinces her that it would be a waste not to use the photographs, so she uploads them on a social network and soon has a number of followers. When she returns to her hometown, her childhood friend Shui shares the photos with a much wider audience, causing Iori to flee back to Tokyo in shame. She soon makes friends with the members of an idol group “Betty’s”, Rei (Rei Horie) and Mami (Mami Misami), and a woman who works at an assorted goods store, Hitsuji. With this small group of friends, Iori learns what it means to be a woman, dealing with objectification, and the simultaneous lure and dangers of the modelling and idol industries.

Writer-director Iori Kedakai also stars in this film that gives us a look at idol culture and the effect it can have on people. The story is a journey of discovery for Iori, an outsider from the sticks coming to the big city, with all the promise it holds. The actors all do a great job with their characters, and Iori is a great protagonist, her meek manner at odds with the often vicious dog-eat-dog world of idols. It is interesting to see an idol group that is working at small clubs, dreams of major success still some way away, and all the actors have great rapport and chemistry in their performances. At times the directing is a little rough around the edges, being the first project from Kedakai, but it has something of the vitality and inventiveness of “Love and Pop”, capturing that brightly coloured, youthful energy associated with the subculture of idols. The film features sex and nudity, but for the most part this is hinted at rather than shown. Instead we see the film largely from Iori’s perspective, wide-eyed and innocent, constantly surprised by each revelation about her new friends from the city. The soundtrack is similarly exuberant, featuring hip-hop as well as the bright pop of “Betty’s” show.

“Hysteric Betty” has a lot to say about the female experience, the objectification and infantilization of women, and female empowerment. We see Iori coming to terms with the often conflicting narratives that are given to young women. On the one hand there may be a desire to be seen as sexually attractive, but it comes with the threat of exploitation and not being taken seriously. At one point we see an idol asking if they will consider her book idea, only to be talked down to and told she only needs to be cute, and not to worry about anything else. Iori’s relationship with Tomiyoshi too shows the dangers present for people lacking self-belief. In a twist on the usual stories, the idol group actually seem to find solidarity together. The character of Rei, who we learn does sex work beside her job as an idol, and Hitsuji, whose love of cute things is a disappointment to her mother, offer a heartening message that women should not be ashamed of whatever they want to do or be. A film about breaking free of the restrictions of society and following your dreams.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial. Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) by Toshio Matsumoto

Eddie (Peter) is a transgender woman working at a gay nightclub in Tokyo. Things become complicated with drug deals being conducted at the club; and Eddie must come to terms with her childhood trauma. “Funeral Parade of Roses” is a curious film with an experimental, art-house aesthetic mixed with crime and psychological genres. The central plot, such as it is, is interspersed with flashbacks and loops back on itself continually in a mesmerising spiral as things slip out of Eddie’s control. The film breaks the fourth wall, featuring interview segments with members of the cast, to the point where the line is blurred between characters and actors. This sense of alienation from the drama is heightened with the flashes of countdowns and title cards that appear randomly. Eddie’s friends are the counter-cultural youth, whose rebellious attitudes to drugs and sexuality in a largely conservative and conformist society are something of a manifesto for the film itself. They state that there are no more boundaries to cross in film and their own films are an attempt to break through with something truly unique and revolutionary.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” was the first feature-length film of writer and director Toshio Matsumoto, who had previously worked on experimental films and short documentaries. It is an important work for its portrayal of transgender issues. The interviews with the cast/characters offer an insight into their lives and the subjects of homosexuality and transgenderism. The interviews are combative, establishing these individuals as transgressive or different, asking them their sexual preferences, whether they are truly happy, or whether they will ever return to being a ‘man’. These are representative of common views around the issues at the time, and it is interesting to see such a direct confrontation of them. This was also Peter’s first film role who gives an incredible performance as Eddie, capturing the joy of self-expression alongside their various internal struggles. Peter (stage name of Shinnosuke Ikehata) was only 17 at the time the film was released, making this performance even more incredible.

The film is loosely based on Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”, references to which are found in Eddie’s story, parental relationships, and the tragic denouement. However, the film delights in attempting to subvert the typical in favour of something more transgressive, perhaps even transcendental. Drug use is shown and plays a major part in the plot. We see the group of young wannabee revolutionaries in a drug-fuelled party, and hear about their experiences on marijuana. It is a film about rebellious youth that retains its power through the bizarre quick cut and achronological editing, creating a work that has its own internal logic, but drifts from conventional plot to chaotic fever dream without skipping a beat.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” is an important work for several reasons, amongst them the portrayal of counter-cultural youth in 1960’s Tokyo, the prominence of transgenderism as a theme, and the influential style that has echoes through the following decades of transgressive film. The chaotic editing, slipping from sensuous and tender scenes of love making to frenetic drug-fuelled trips, gives the sense of a film that is attempting to do something different with the art form, while being confident enough to play with the styles and genre tropes of other films. An absolute must watch for fans of film history, youth and gender issues and counter-culture. “Funeral Parade of Roses” has aged exceptionally well due to its wild energy and forward-thinking stance on many issues.