Flower and Snake

Women to be Reckoned With

My Body, Your Look

“I can hear . . . your bad thoughts” (Yukiko Okamoto, “Another Heaven”)

Ataru Oikawa’s “Tôkyô densetsu:  Ugomeku machi no kyôki” (“Tokyo Psycho,” 2004) is considered a horror title whereas Takashi Ishii’s “Hana to hebi” (“Flower and Snake,” 2004) is considered a remake of the “roman porno” films of the same name.  Yet, despite obvious differences in narrative and cinematic sophistication – “Flower and Snake” having been described by one critic as both beautiful and depraved – these films suggest a number of interesting points of comparison.  Both focus on the horrifying abduction of a woman who is the central character in each film.  Each character’s experiences and suffering at the hands of men constitute the narrative.  Both women are portrayed as experiencing real suffering for which they bear no responsibility.  Each is stalked and preyed on so each must struggle to emerge from the resultant nightmare.  Since the elements of horror are created by the acts of ordinary mortals, they cannot be resolved by extraordinary or uncanny powers.  In spite of their narratives, both films privilege the experience of their female protagonists and thereby avoid simply presenting women as objects of the sadistic cinematic gaze.

Flower and Snake, Tokyo Psycho
Despite its budgetary limitations, “Tokyo Psycho” foregrounds a solid performance by Sachiko Kokubu who plays “Yumiko,” a fairly ordinary young woman who discovers she is being stalked by a former high school classmate.  After murdering one of her friends, this individual captures “Yumiko” and takes her to a rural location.  There, “Yumiko” ultimately succeeds in strangling her assailant to death.  Key features marking this as horror include receipt of a mysterious note, the derangement and heinous acts of the stalker, and scrutiny of the plight of a young woman utterly alone.  Characteristically, sexuality is almost entirely missing from this variant on the slasher narrative.  However, “Yumiko” does not sit idly by to await her fate.  She is depicted as conducting a web search on her assailant, enlisting a private investigator, and searching her stalker’s apartment.  “Yumiko’s” fear and relative physical helplessness suggest she is less a prototypic Final Girl than an ordinary person.  Her character is also not transformed by these experiences, but returns to her apartment and displays her warmth toward the young daughter of the harried single mother who is a neighbor.
Tokyo Psycho
Ishii's film foregrounds an extraordinary performance by Aya Sugimoto who is known for her ballroom dancing skills.  Her character, “Shizuko Toyama” is the trophy wife of a neglectful and increasingly alcoholic business tycoon.  She begins to experience a number of disturbing masochistic fantasies and dreams.  When her husband is blackmailed by a powerful yakuza, he agrees to “Shizuko’s” abduction for the pleasure of a very wealthy 95-year-old voyeur, resulting in the apparent realization of these fantasies.  Her abductor is obsessed with the idea that “Shizuko” is concealing her deepest desires and, in the manner of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Shizuko” is lured into a lavish sadomasochistic dungeon whose purpose is to provide a theater of voyeurism for the super-rich.  This involves exposing “Shizuko” to kinbaku (rope bondage) and other forms of humiliation.  “Shizuko’s” suffering may greatly differ in form from “Yumiko’s,” but the central theme of sudden, destabilizing control exerted by a powerful male over one’s very survival is common to both.
Flower and Snake
In spite of superficial resemblances to a long line of notoriously misogynistic films in which women are subjected to barbaric treatment, “Flower and Snake” is nevertheless subtly different.  The narrative actually concerns “Shizuko,” and not her oppressors.  It is her “pleasures” in resistance that become articulated through the text, progressively involving a shift in power relations toward the point that her elderly abductor crawls toward her feet, abasing himself.  It also blurs the boundaries between the possible and fantastic until it becomes difficult to distinguish “Shizuko’s” fantasies from her actual experiences.  Despite the obvious criticism that this device of masochistic fantasy can serve to legitimize what would otherwise constitute exclusively sadistic control, the film nonetheless poses interesting questions about the potency of thought and wish fulfillment as well as the intricacy of entanglements between gender, exposing, voyeurism and any performance art.  Perhaps it is all really a dream, imagined like any fictional text.
Flower and Snake
Although the content of such imaginings might seem to affirm a blatantly sadistic cinematic gaze, the gender of the person responsible for the imagining (“Shizuko”) may subvert the power of this gaze or even appropriate it as the necessary counterpart of “being looked at.”  This point is made at several junctures in the narrative.  Elements of the “sadistic” gaze identified by feminist film theory involving fragmentation of “Shizuko’s” body by paired close-up shots of her eyes and red painted lips (aligned toward the vertical) are used to knowingly self-conscious effect.  Her elderly abductor, “Tashiro-san” (Renji Ishibashi), who is, in effect, also a stalker, is initially seen gazing enraptured at a giant screen filled by “Shizuko’s” eyes and lips, seen in full makeup while dancing.  Her eyes appear to return the camera’s look, and the accompanying music of the waltz she is performing is used throughout the film as a signifier of the desire associated with “display” and performance.  Significantly, these exact cinematic elements are also the focus of on-screen looking at “Shizuko” by her female bodyguard “Kyoko” (Misaki Mori), who, after using martial arts to save “Shizuko” from a kidnapping attempt in a parking garage, becomes imagined as another desiring figure.  She is later not only subjected to the same treatment as “Shizuko” to coerce “Shizuko’s” cooperation, but also makes love to her while confessing her feelings.  In the end, it is “Kyoko’s” name that “Shizuko” calls out as she finally escapes from the physical limits of her imprisonment before ultimately shooting her husband – inviting a reading on figurative escape from patriarchal control and all its implications.  Toward the end of the film “Shizuko” imagines herself dancing as element of mise-en-scene are stripped away – the other dancers, her partner, her clothes – until she is dancing alone, naked, spot-lit on an otherwise darkened stage.  This image suggests a disturbing reductionism implicit in the visual pleasure associated with watching the “high culture” performance art of dance and, perhaps, of being watched while performing.  This point may also bear on difficulties associated with an earlier work of Ishii – “Freeze Me” – which articulates an uneasy dialectic of viewer identification with “Chihiro” (Harumi Inoue) while also staring at her naked body.  The resulting discomfort subverts simple genre expectations and may provoke the viewer to become aware of their potential complicity (by looking at “Chihiro’s” body) in the very type of acts she is struggling against (a struggle with which the viewer is invited to identify).
Tokyo Psycho, Flower and Snake
Ultimately, both “Tokyo Psycho” and “Flower and Snake” may pose the same fundamental questions about gender and “psychic monsters.”  If the capture and control of women self-evidently constitutes sadistic violence, what might this imply about preliminary looking and fantasies – and about the film text’s audience looking at these?  If they are related, how can the viewer avoid partial complicity by also looking at the preliminary elements?  Although the female protagonist bears no responsibility for the approach of the male predator, does she bear any responsibility for the opportunity to gaze at her?  “Shizuko” explicitly fantasizes dancing naked and being not only exposed to, but actively recruiting and then controlling the most intrusive gaze of all.  An equivalence is also drawn in “Tokyo Psycho” between “Yumiko’s” physical attractiveness among her classmates and the resulting obsessive interest of one of them.  Significantly, “Yumiko” later wears shapeless fatigue-style clothing after her attractiveness is commented on.  The horror film can, indeed, confess the most elemental relations between gender, the cinematic gaze, and control.