Since the yakuza died on impact after falling out of the window, Ageha and company have to bury him to avoid police investigation. In this scene, Iwai begins to play with genre and style, setting this scene in a Western style graveyard, lighting it with flashlights, and combines blue tints with fog machine effects to create a classic horror film aesthetic.
The group find something unusual coming out of the broken body: a cassette tape.
Glico’s long lost brother Ryou Ryanki “The Counterfeit King” turns out to be the “rightful” owner of the cassette tape. In a parody of the yakuza genre, Iwai sets up this scene in striking reds and blacks. Two Chinese armed cronies provide backup for Ryanki as he demands to know what has become of the tape. Though outnumbered, they handily overwhelm the Japanese yakuza who cower before them.
Ageha and her friends discover that although the cassette tape plays Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in the tape deck, it also contains the magnetic data for imprinting counterfeit Fukuzawa (¥10,000) notes.
Ran demonstrates that since yen notes are all the same height, the ¥1,000 note can be cut in half and extended with tape to be the same width as a ¥10,000 note. He then prints the magnetic data from the cassette tape for the ¥10,000 note on the resized ¥1,000 notes.
Yen Town children form a production line, resizing ¥1,000 notes and imprinting them with the ¥10,000 note data.
Ageha resizes a ¥1,000 note.
When one of the altered ¥1,000 notes is put into a money changer, the machine reads it as a ¥10,000 note and exchanges it for 10 authentic ¥1,000 notes.
Soon, the Yen Towns have a whole truckload of ¥1,000 notes. Though now rich beyond their imaginations, they are still in social position of scrambling for yen. Here, loose notes have flown out of the truck and they rush to gather the flyaway bills.
Some of the Yen Towns use their new wealth to return to their home countries. Ageha, Glico, and Feihong buy a warehouse (under a phony Japanese proxy) in the city, planning to turn it into a nightclub.
Feihong and Ageha hold auditions for their new Yen Town band that will be the highlight of the night club. Glico will be the star singer for the band.
During the auditions, they meet a curious foreigner, who neither sings nor plays an instrument, but wants to be involved with the club as a manager. He explains in an extended monologue that the Yen Towns are what he calls “Third Culture Kids,” second generation immigrants who are at once cut off from the culture of their parents and estranged from the dominant culture of mainstream Japan. Even though he himself was born and raised in Japan and can only speak Japanese “thanks to the lousy Japanese English education system,” he will always be an “outsider.”
A close up of Glico singing during a Yen Town Band practice session.
The club is a hit and crowds gather to hear Glico and the Yen Town Band.
A talent agent for a major record company discovers Glico. She meets with company representatives to discuss the details of her new contract. Glico learns that in order to become a Japanese pop star, she must take on a Japanese name and identity and completely erase her Yen Town past. This scene stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film: long shots, longer takes, brighter lighting, and symmetry. In this scene of enforced naturalization, the film itself is naturalized into more stereotypical “Japanese” cinematography.
In order to erase Glico’s past, the record company arranges for the arrest of Feihong because he is considered to be her romantic interest and therefore a dangerous liability. Ageha visits Feihong in jail and begins to learn Chinese in order to strengthen her connection to him.
Without Glico and Feihong, the club fails and Ageha moves back to the scrap yard and her Yen Town life. A few Yen Town children find packages of heroin at the harbor and Ageha volunteers to test the goods on herself to see if they are saleable.
Unsurprisingly, the found heroin is bad. Her friends take her to a doctor deep in the black market labyrinth. The doctor, who is also a tattoo artist, saves Ageha’s life.
The Japanese police can’t be bothered to deal with Feihong’s illegal immigrant status—he is one of many for processing—and so they release him. Feihong runs triumphantly through the streets, abruptly stopping in the middle of an intersection, awestruck by a billboard featuring Glico as a new Japanese pop star.
The club has failed in Glico and Feihong’s absence, although neither one know it. After his release, Feihong arrives at the club just in time to meet the demolition crew. Poignantly, the Yen Town Club sign crashes down to the concrete. The Yen Town’s dreams are shattered.
Ageha returns to the doctor who saved her life in order to get a tattoo.
An overhead “butterfly” POV of Ageha and the doctor. The colors of Ageha’s tattoo are divided up into inkpots to the left, the same colors that will wash the memories of her childhood.
A tattoo ink butterfly POV of the city in Ageha’s memory.
A tattoo ink butterfly POV of the city in Ageha’s memory.
A tattoo ink butterfly POV of the city in Ageha’s memory.
The phrase “new Japanese Cinema” (sometimes “new Japanese film”) has been in use since at least the 1960s to publicize relatively recently released films making the rounds of international festivals, art houses, and retail markets. [open endnotes in new window] However, in the past decade, New Japanese Cinema with a capital “N” has surfaced to designate a grouping of films that perhaps share something more than just being “recent.” The application of this term is, of course, problematic because, as I will discuss, it has an amorphous definition and slippery meaning among journalists, critics, scholars, and publicists alike. There is no consensus in terms of dates, content, or style. “New Japanese Cinema” as a term is also confusing historically. Its predecessor, the Japanese New Wave (nuberu bagu), is clearly used to designate a movement lead by a collective of studio-trained, independent filmmakers from the 1950s to the 1970s including Oshima Nagisa, Imamura Shohei, and Suzuki Seijun. Indeed, aware of this, some have even resorted to using the phrases “Japan’s New New Wave” and the “New Japanese New Wave” (Stevens, 2001; Ko, 2004; Bingham, 2008; Leung, 2009). Functionally speaking, the initiation of another term sporting the appellation “new” seems sloppy and redundant at best—will we see a New New New Wave in the future? Be that as it may, “New Japanese Cinema” as such is gaining in popularity.
Noted film critics Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, co-editors of the still premier Japanese cinema website, Midnight Eye (www.midnighteye.com), take the auteur approach in their book The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (2005). Mes and Sharp claim the book is “an attempt to give contemporary Japanese film its due as well as an attempt to fill a gap” (resulting from the end of the New Wave) by featuring a “new generation of filmmakers” emerging in the 1990s (xii). Aside from the last section reviewing individual films collectively entitled The Other Players, each chapter is constructed around directors , samples their respective works, and combines historical information with insightful reviews and interpretive analysis. Structuring their book in this way, however, Mes and Sharp do not attempt to define New Japanese Film in any theoretical sense (or even by shared characteristics); they make no effort to connect the directors and their work to one another. The main feature of this version of New Japanese Cinema, then, is purely temporal.
And yet, even in this sense, there is an added element of confusion within the grouping. The book begins with chapters on Suzuki Seijun and Imamura Shohei (two New Wave directors) followed by Fukasaku Kinji (perhaps most celebrated for his film Battles without Honor and Humanity, 1974). Although these directors have made films in the past two decades, their inclusion in this auteur-structured collective—along with other directors who have actively been making films since the 1970s—may constitute a kind of continuous narrative of Japanese film direction, but ultimately undermines the attempt to distinguish a cohesive “new generation of filmmakers.” Moreover, as Mes and Sharp as much admit, their selection of articles and directors does seem to be predicated on personal taste, which tends to belie the publisher’s blurb, “a complete guide to Japan’s movie renaissance” (back cover).
Film scholar Aaron Gerow also writes specifically on this new generation of filmmakers in New Japanese Cinema, but reworks them into what he calls a “Festival Generation” (Recognizing ‘Others’, 1). Gerow gives us more than a temporal classification and illustrates the industry constraints that these filmmakers face, noting that this new generation “still at a disadvantage in a domestic market dominated by major studios, have come to look on foreign film events as a crucial means of gaining prestige and publicity at home” (1). I am in favor of an industry (production and exhibition) context to think about contemporary Japanese cinema and would like to see this term Festival Generation catch on within the field. International film festivals do have an enormous effect on domestic reception of prize-winning films (e.g. the case of Academy Award winner Departures/Okuribito, 2008)  However, the important function that international film festivals play, as noted by Gerow, in exposing and supporting the Japanese industry is not unprecedented. The reception (and inception of Japanese film studies in the West) of Japanese cinema begins with well-known “discovery” of Kurosawa at Venice in 1951. It may not be enough, then, to define the contemporary situation.
This link between international film festival exhibition and Japanese cinema studies should prompt us to ask the following question: on what basis of criteria are films from Japan selected for international competition? If films are still selected because they are seen as representative of outstanding Japanese cinema bearing the characteristics of a perceived national cinema (and this suggestion is not without basis if we consider recent prize winning films such as, again, Departures/Okuribito or Kitano Takeshi’s Hanabi, 1997), it may behoove us to avoid using the perspective of international film festivals as in some way demonstrative of a contemporary generation. Such a tactic may not relieve us of the pitfalls of previous generations that Davis and Yoshimoto articulate in their own work and Gerow himself describes: “Japanese motion pictures of the 1950s and 1960s earned praise abroad because they were defined as art cinema (as opposed to popular cinema) and because, in a bipolar fashion, they verified universal values of humanism while also confirming impressions of Japan as exotic and unique” (1). Instead, the role that domestic film festivals (in conjunction with, overlooked in Gerow’s article, backgrounds in television  and V-cinema production) play in the Japanese industry since the 1990s is equally, if not more so, worthy of serious theoretical attention and may provide an “out” in terms of potential critiques of orientalism and the problems of film accessibility that so often formulate the defense of scholarly selectivity. I will return to this point below.
Like Mes and Sharp, Gerow also pinpoints a cadre of directorial talent (based on international preference determined by festival success rather than personal preference), most of whom overlap with those featured in The Midnight Eye Guide. Unlike Mes and Sharp, Gerow is less interested in discussing these directors as auteurs and is more interested in analytically approaching their body of work as sharing thematic and representational similarities. Filmmakers of this new generation are interested in “a rejoining of the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of cinema” (Recognizing ‘Others’, 2)–meaning that emphasis on form and content have previously been fractured and, at times, differently valued—and, while unifying these two components of film, challenging the conception that Japan is a unified, homogenous nation with a clearly identifiable national cinema. Their films trouble a cohesive Japanese identity “by focusing on zainichi Koreans, foreign workers from Asia, and others among the variety of peoples, languages, and cultures that inhabit the archipelago” (2). This troubling of identity (the “what) through the depiction of a series of “others” Gerow discusses—racial, national, familial, generational, interpersonal, psychological—is substantiated formally (the “how”) through the use of a shared “anti-humanist and detached” style (5). Significant characteristics of this style—what Gerow later complicates in regards to the work of Miike as a “homelessness of style” (Homelessness, 2009)—are preferential use of long shots, long takes, and the absence (or scarcity) of POVs, characteristics that, as Gerow admits, are not definitive of a break with the past (Ozu, Mizoguchi, et al), but due to the new generation’s rejection of the former’s emphasis on portrayals of humanism, are meant to be read/seen/interpreted differently. Although a compelling framework, this stance does seem to be somewhat weakly subjective; one has to buy, first, Gerow’s thematic characteristics of contemporary Japanese cinema as a whole, before agreeing that inherited elements of style are strategically and collectively used differently (and by more filmmakers than cited Aoyama Shinji).
Isolde Standish’s revisionary text A New History of Japanese Cinema ends with a brief look at recent filmmakers or, in her terms, the “post-moral” generation (332). Similar to Mes and Sharp, she tends to conflate contemporary filmmakers with filmmakers of the New Wave and, inline with Gerow, she categorizes them as sharing similar thematic content and style. However, unlike Gerow’s contention that these directors are producing work that is—by nature of “othering”—highly socially politicized, Standish argues the contrary. To set a historical precedence, Standish characterizes Japanese film style of the 1960s and early 1970s as avant-garde articulations denotive of a generational preoccupation with rebellion against state and structure. In their attack on capitalist enterprise and a perceived institutionalized return to pre-Occupation conservative social constructs, these political films transgressed social mores through almost hyperreal expressions of violence and spectacle. However, their attempts to invoke political awareness, agency, or even civil disquiet were undermined by the growth of Japan as an advanced capitalist society. The avant-garde foray into seemingly limitless excess echoed and indeed nourished capitalist dependency on “myth and fantasy, fictional wealth, exoticism and hyperbole, rhetoric, virtual reality and sheer appearance” (332). Efforts to resist the normative power matrix consisted of envelope-pushing tactics and snowballing expressions of spectacle—especially visualizations of violence and sex—that were subsumed as a matter of course into consumer culture, thereby negating the subversive intent. Standish argues that the following generation—presumably our contemporary cast of filmmakers, although her designation of “generation” is unclear—inherited the fallout of these politically fruitless and degenerative mechanics.
The current generation, which Standish has labeled "post-moral" (jingi naki) after Fukasaku Kinji’s celebrated Yakuza Papers series, similarly thematicizes transgressive hyperbole. However, she argues, as they are the product of and operate within advanced consumer capitalism, the films of this "post-moral" generation are postmodernist disengagements from the political and critical agency of their cinematic forebears. They include similar thematic tropes, discourse, and visual decadence found in the preceding generation of films, but removed from the historical context of resistance they are rendered meaningless exploits of spectacle. Drawing particularly from her own readings of select films by directors Miike Takashi, Kitano Takeshi, and Fukasaku Kinji, Standish notes that throughout the course of these ‘post-moral’ narratives “no one is saved and no apparent heroes exist; all are damaged individuals existing as global drifters lacking any geographical or emotional sense of connectedness” (330). Social anxieties are traumatically projected onto the physical realm of the bodies of the characters, primarily through sexual violation, abjectification, mutilation, or death. The alienated protagonists’ true struggle is not against other characters so much as it is against the surrounding mise-en-scene—usually dystopic conurbation. Despite their efforts, they are doomed to succumb to inevitable psychological or physiological destruction (or both). The protagonists’ resignation to defeat reflects their position as amoral, agentless actors staged in “a world in which there is indeed no salvation, but on the other hand nothing to be saved” (338).
Although Standish identifies significant themes and historical continuities between the resistance era (New Wave) film style and contemporary cinema, her term ‘post-moral’ is a problematic appellation. Not only must we question her usage of the denomination “moral” and its limiting projections of normativity, as well as her stance that these films somehow operate in a temporal disconnect from a nostalgic moral system, but we must also consider what seems to be a reductionist determination of the widely diverse thematics of the contemporary postmodern (her term) palette. This is surprising given her very methodical and excellent approach to other eras of cinema history, in which she traces multiple paths of expression and representation. Instead, Standish equates the ‘post-moral’ generation with postmodernity—a very troublesome mode to designate with historical specificity in regards to Japan without resorting to intellectual colonialism.
While I do not mean to suggest that Mes, Sharp, Gerow, and Standish are wrong—far from it, they are all important and leading contributors to the field of Japanese cinema studies—I do mean to point out that they are being strategically selective. In part, this is the constraint of an auteur-based approach. In designating a particular “generation,” it is of course necessary to pinpoint notable representatives. Yet, by doing so, these key players can be used misrepresentationally (and in some cases ahistorically) to exemplify the entirety of contemporary cinema both coming out of and circulating around Japan. Focus on a particular, hand-selected group—the creation of a contemporary canon—necessarily omits large bodies of work and workers, individuals and collectives, expressions and visions. This canon, in turn, creates a bottleneck in the field: scholars and critics with limited access to current Japanese films tend to recapitulate emphasis placed on known entities. This is particularly the case when language and distribution regions are a limiting factor. Whether the selection is based on personal preference (Mes and Sharp), international recognition (Gerow), or historical continuity (Standish), the process necessitates omission. Although all three nod to the much lauded Japanese horror scene, they completely ignore entire genres such as comedy, “pure love” (junai), animated and live action children’s films, action and jidaigeki, youth (seishun) films, melodrama, or even blockbusters, to name a few. This shared choice seems to bear markers of a contention between high-brow art-theatre cinema and popular multiplex movies. The total elision of the influence the Japanese television industry has had on contemporary directors also points to this. Moreover, there is little discussion of how popular or successful these films are on the home front
Before moving on, I would like to point out briefly what may perhaps be strikingly obvious: the “new” in New Japanese Cinema, as with the “new” in Japanese New Wave, is primarily used to distinguish a group of films and filmmakers from films of an earlier generation. This is a temporal demarcation. However, unlike the New Wave , Japanese film scholars, in adopting a term derived from popular culture (as opposed to a term embraced as a movement by the filmmakers themselves), have yet to come close to a shared definition. Clearly, we do not mean simply “recent” or “contemporary.” Otherwise, we might use these terms. The drive, I suspect, is to designate a break with the past. However, as we know, though the Japanese film industry has certainly had both setbacks and comebacks since the studio collapse in the 1980s, the history of film production in Japan is contiguous not, despite efforts to dissect it, fragmented. Nor are generations of filmmakers (many of whom are now trained in film schools led by prominent film directors who in turn were trained by film and television directors and scholars as per the Japanese ladder system of professional hierarchy) necessarily so divorced from inherited expressions (domestic and global) of content or style.
It may be that New Japanese Cinema does not constitute a movement. We may be better off abstaining from painting contemporary Japanese cinema with large brush strokes (and rethinking the neat packages of other eras within Japanese cinema) until the distance of years allows for a more considerate, nuanced perspective. It is not my goal here to offer an alternative definition of New Japanese Film; rather, I am trying to argue for a resistance against the urge for classification and reduction: a canon. Instead, let us consider contemporary Japanese cinema as we do other cinemas: as a complex and heterogeneous cinema with numerous auteurs, a multitude of genres, a multiplicity of styles, messages, and expressions, and a great deal of influences, including television.
Beyond the canon: Iwai Shunji
Like many other contemporary filmmakers in Japan, director Iwai Shunji began his career in television as a director of music videos and serial dramas. To some degree, this start is said to have shaped his later film aesthetic, a style that features predominantly a preference for exploring movement (sometimes to the effect of obscuring the image), handheld camerawork, super-saturation of color, integration of music video montage (in that scenes are edited without dialogue to pop songs as musical interludes or are outright performances of pop songs by the pop singers themselves), rapid editing, and an extremely large number of shots per scene. On the one hand, we can consider this to be distinctly true: there is an overlap between his film style and Japanese music videos and television commercials in a shared privileging of image, music, and rapid edits. On the other hand, Iwai’s work bears very little resemblance to most mainstream television dramas that are often slow paced with long, dramatic takes and static camerawork. Iwai’s style is, more often than not, described by nay-saying critics as derivative of television aesthetics, but what detractors may be suggesting is that his style is reminiscent of television commercials, which are, by definition, commercial and not art. And yet, it was his television drama Fireworks (1993) that garnered attention from the Japanese Director's Association and he was awarded the Best New Comer prize. Recognition in commercial pop culture also means financial support from commercial pop culture industry and Iwai was thereafter able to secure budgets for feature length films for exhibition in theaters.
Iwai’s most critically acclaimed work is Love Letter (1995), a film about young woman who, out of mourning, writes a love letter to her deceased fiancé as a way of gaining closure. When she receives a reply from him, she begins an unlikely correspondence with him that inevitably leads her to return to his hometown to get to the bottom of the impossible circumstance. Iwai won eleven prizes for the film from a number of domestic and international juries including the Academy Award in Japan for Best Production, the Kinema Junpo Best 10 Reader’s Poll for Director, the Yokohama Film Festival for both Best Director and Best Production, and the Montreal Film Festival Audience Award. The actors featured in Love Letter also walked away from the film with several awards of their own. Since Love Letter, however, Iwai has somewhat dropped out of favor with the prize circuits and reviewers. Although his later films have picked up some critical attention and a few accolades, many reviewers have soured in their reception of Iwai’s later works. For example, to critic Jasper Sharp, his subsequent films are “prone to a slick stylistic glibness that caters squarely for the youth market—glossy exercises in pseudo-hip which, though undeniably influential, a mere five years later already look passé” (Fried Dragon Fish Review). There may be a reason for this fall from favor: full of long, static shots and contemplative silence, Love Letter is the least Iwai-like film in Iwai’s repertoire. It seems justifiable, then, to speculate that Love Letter was celebrated not as a sign of a “new” comer or a “new” talent, but another promise in a staid and recognizable canon.
Iwai is representative of a contemporary director of new Japanese cinema, but not New Japanese Cinema. His works straddle a liminal place in contemporary criticism and reception in the West. He is both well known and not. His films have featured in festivals and public film series in the U.S. (particularly his 2001 All About Lily Chou Chou) and they have been the subject of articles and conference presentations, but he is largely overlooked in most serious scholarship and usually mentioned only in passing. Three of his films are available on Netflix: Lily Chou Chou, Hana and Alice (2004), and New York, I Love You (2009), but these titles do not even constitute half of his body of work. His film Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) scores a 7.5 out of 10 on imdb.com (Suwaroteiru), and yet the film is not available at the Amazon website. The same movie appears on two of the syllabi I reviewed earlier, but the most popular text for these classes—Richie’s A Hundred Years—affords Iwai less than half a page, giving him something of a brush off as a “music-video director…who makes no distinction between the forms of film television, and music video, and whose ‘message’ is the stylish nihilism which has remained a favored youth-oriented mannerism” (225). Jasper and Sharp review Love Letter in New Japanese Film, but are clearly disdainful of his subsequent work and is relegated to the “other players” section. In company with most contemporary directors, Standish ignores him completely in A New History and his films—sometimes downright preachy in moralizing content—do seem to belie her post-moral classification. However, Iwai fares better with Gerow, who specifically lists him in his Festival Generation (Others) and specifically analyzes Swallowtail Butterfly as the troubling of a cohesive Japanese identity—one of the characteristics he outlines as a cohesive constant in contemporary Japanese cinema—in another article (Consuming Asia, 87-93). That said, the style characteristics of Gerow’s generation-- long shots, long takes, and the absence of POVs—hardly maps onto the main body of Iwai’s work.
Let us consider Iwai’s film Swallowtail Butterfly to explore how Iwai both embodies and troubles a New Japanese Cinema identity, how his works should suggest to us the dangers of a contemporary canon, and how, as a teaching text, we can use this film as an accessible device to challenge the idea of a national, cohesive, cinema in need of cultural explanation.
With Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), Iwai reimagines modern-day Tokyo from the margins in. The film begins with an energetic montage of overhead black and white shots of contemporary urban industrial complexes overlaid with English text, both visually and in voice-over narration, that establishes premise and style: pastiche, energy, play, message, and a decentering from Japanese culture and language. The text and voice-over explain that we are about to enter a ‘fairy tale’ world of industry and enterprise, one in which immigrants from China, Brazil, the United States, South-East Asia, etc. flocked to a mythological city called Yen Town in the pursuit of Yen. So enmeshed in the fabric of Yen Town’s capital growth, these workers, on whose backs the success of the city depends, are derisively labeled Yen Towns. Yet, despite the necessity of their labor, Yen Towns have been denied social status and representation. They have been pushed to the margins of the town to live in multicultural poverty, surviving in liminal collectivity as individuals uprooted from their homelands and excluded from new terrain.
The story follows a nameless young girl who is, from the death of her mother at the beginning of the film, bounced around from stranger to stranger in the Yen Towns immigrant community until Glico, a Chinese prostitute played by pop start Chara, takes her in and gives her a home and a name: Ageha. Through Glico, Ageha befriends several misfit Yen Towners who run a salvage yard by day and something of makeshift outdoor drinking hole by night. Between them, they constitute a mismatched family made even more incongruous by the mashup of their dialogue: some characters speak only English and Mandarian, others English and broken Japanese, and between them they flip in and out of language and lingo according to who speaks what. Conflict enters the narrative when one of Glico’s customers—a yakuza gangster—dies and they find upon burying him, a cassette tape with a recording of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The Yen Towners find more than Sinatra’s way, they find their own path to the much sought after yen when they discover that the tape contains a secret encoding that allows them to counterfeit fistfuls of the stuff. With their newfound riches, the group moves from the margins of town into the city to start up a legitimate nightclub headlining Glico as a singing sensation.
The Yen Towners are not able to smoothly integrate into mainstream society, however, and only Glico—spotted by talent agents and signed on to a major record company—makes the transition. Even so, she is forced to erase her Chinese origins and adopt a concocted Japanese identity. This fracture in the group is followed by more trouble when more yakuza gangsters show up looking for their highly profitable cassette tape. In the ensuing scuffle, the characters turn on each other, immigration police get involved, a reporter unmasks Glico’s true heritage, and the price of success and passing in normative society becomes too costly. The group, minus a few casualties, reunites to return the tape to its “rightful” owners and destroy the remaining ill-gotten yen in a gesture of defiance against nationalism and capitalism. The events serve as a coming of age narrative for Ageha who transforms from a pitiable nameless orphan to a rebellious, self-reliant leader of a community; or, in terms of the film’s central metaphor, she transforms from a caterpillar into a butterfly.
As previously stated, Iwai’s filmmaking style is notably a celebration of movement and collage, and no less so in Swallowtail. Using digital video, Iwai makes great use of the raw aspect inherent within the digital format (particularly so given the technology in 1996), accentuating pixilation and an array of overexposed color tinting. The entire film is shot with a handheld camera, creating a visual perspective that is always in motion (often erratic) and identified as no gaze other than that of a seemingly disembodied camera. However, Iwai often privileges close ups—sometimes so close as to obscure the image—that, when paired with Glico’s musical numbers, are highly charged with emotion and spectator-character connectivity. The position of the camera is generally of a third-party ‘pseudo-documentary’ point of view that, were it not for the charged emotional content or the effect of the performances numbers that, as is the case with the musical genre as a whole, establish a community bond between spectator and screen (so long as the moviegoer feels a connection to pop music), might be inline with Gerow’s characteristic of the Festival Generation: the lack of POV. However, Iwai does use the POV at moments of reveal or psychological interiority, as I will discuss below. Contrary to long takes, shots are joined together at a rapid pace that simultaneously reinforces the fragmentation of the characters’ collective identity as well as the fragmented experience of the audience as we piece together often obscure images backed by broken languages into a sutured whole. As such, it is not uncommon for an average five-minute scene in Swallowtail to consist of upwards of 200 individual shots. Iwai rejects long takes, deep focus, and slow pacing in favor of speed, pixels, and the cut. This decentered fragmentation is a direct, purposeful reinforcement of Swallowtail Butterfly’s content: a decentered, fragmented rendition of Japanese society reimagined from the margins.
That is the central message of what is ultimately a highly moralizing film critical of contemporary society. Although there is certainly a multiplicity of meaning and subtext embedded in the digital glitz and glam, Swallowtail is primarily engaged with the representation of marginalized bodies and identities in the hyper-capitalist economy of fairy tale ‘Yen Town’ (modern day Tokyo) as a bitter but beautiful critique of late 90s Japanese social obsession with status/consumerism as well as the country’s underlying structural xenophobic violence. By focusing on the lives of young second-generation immigrants, Iwai captures a vitality that he shapes into a projection of a new generation (Iwai dubs them the ‘Third Culture Kids’) as the offspring of a global economy. He problematizes the dominant culture’s success as built on the suffering of non-Japanese peoples living in Japan that have been marginalized as anonymous, cultureless second-class citizens. As it is represented in the film, in order for these peoples to successfully integrate into Japanese society, they must erase their past histories (ethnicities/cultures/ languages/etc.) and identities that mark them as non-Japanese, thereby becoming superficially Japanese. In other words, they must give up their particular specificity in order to pass in dominant culture. That Iwai illustrates this by primarily using Japanese actors to play non-Japanese characters is a layer of extra-textual complication that is the subject of some sore criticism of the film, and perhaps makes him a complicit player in that which he is trying to deconstruct. Be that as it may, the film still troubles normative identity. However, it does not leave us disaffected and estranged. The message is not dystopic. Rather, the film offers the optimistic construction of community based in individual self-realization.
This is particularly evident in what film critic Todoroki Yukio dubbed the “tattoo scene” (Maho, 40).
As the pivotal moment in Ageha’s coming of age story, the tattoo scene emphasizes the underlying themes of the film that deal with the erasure of the particular individual as he or she becomes a commodified component of the labor force that supports a booming global economy. It is in this scene that Ageha, resists the economic and ethnic interpellation (that she sees the adults around her submitting to) by recovering her heretofore submerged (originally even nameless) sense of self. During the process of getting a tattoo, she confronts her past through the recovery of her early memories.
The scene begins with Ageha revisiting a doctor she saw earlier in the film; he had saved her life after she brazenly tested out some bad heroine she and her friends had found. The doctor also happens to moonlight as a tattoo artist. Her return to the doctor—this time under her own volition—is symbolic of her newly found agency. She goes to a doctor who facilitates her healing process by agreeing to tattoo the image of a swallowtail butterfly on Ageha’s chest. This is a smaller version of a similar tattoo he did for Ageha’s mentor/adopted sister/mother Glico. The character of Glico, at this point in the film, is an important foil for Ageha. In order transform from a prostitute to an idol singer and attain celebrity status in mainstream Japanese pop culture, Glico has camouflaged her Chinese heritage and scandalous work history by donning an artificial Japanese ethnicity and persona constructed for her by Japanese music industry management. This is the exact opposite of what Ageha is about to do. However, the tattoo will ironically serve the same purpose for both because it is the discovery of Glico’s tattoo later on by a nosey reporter that links the new pop star to a nude Polaroid of Glico as Chinese prostitute. The tattoo also functions as the visual point of connection between Ageha and both her real mother and Glico as her surrogate mother: Glico’s tattoo, as was previously disclosed in the film, is a marker of her identity specifically so that when she dies she won’t be an anonymous corpse on a slab. Such was the fate of Ageha’s birth mother who’s ad hoc funeral we see at the beginning of the film. In the tattoo scene, we see Ageha transform from a naked body on a table slab (her mother) into a marked adult (Glico) and then beyond (herself). Like Glico, Ageha wishes to establish her identity. In becoming herself and actively marking herself, Ageha resists homogenization into the dominant culture and embraces her past to become whole, different, and not Japanese. In this scene, she actively asserts her identity as a Yen Town.
After Ageha convinces the doctor to give her a tattoo, she gently lies down on a table in the center of the grungy, poorly lit room. She gingerly removes her white shirt and the doctor delicately perches over her, backlit in a wash of light from a window behind him. Compared to the shabby darkness in the rest of the room (a metaphorical cocoon), this, now, is a process of enlightenment. For the rest of the scene, Ageha is shot from overhead. The doctor crouches over her naked torso and to his right is a table with pots of colored ink. In order to distract Ageha from the pain of the tattoo, he asks her to tell him about the first time she saw a butterfly.
The retelling of the memory recalls her childhood as well—something we have never seen on screen or know that Ageha has thought about—as well as her estranged relationship with her mother and, by extension, her sense of self. As Ageha recalls back to her first memory of a butterfly, the scene is intercut with snippets of her memory, the frames artfully colorized in the tints of the tattoo ink. These shots are captured by a detached, frenetic, overhead POV that we soon understand is the POV of the butterfly Ageha is remembering and not her own: she has become so estranged from her own history that her recollection of a butterfly is inverted and we see the butterfly’s recollection of her.
In this manner, Ageha sees herself as a neglected child playing in a filthy, locked bathroom. She transports cold noodles between bowls, intermittently feeding her battered dolls. She uses a ladle to fetch her playthings drinking water. Suddenly, she notices the butterfly fluttering above her, stops her play, and clambers on top of the toilet to catch it. Shots of the little girl and the butterfly are intercut with images of her mother (face always obscured by her long hair) having sex with a customer in the next room, captured with the same detached, erratic camera. Through this visual juxtaposition, Ageha sees herself as both the abandoned child culturally—we know that she speaks Japanese but has no knowledge of Chinese—and socially—she plays as an outcast in filth—to the extant that her subjectivity within the memory is questioned. Is she the child or the butterfly? Throughout her narration of the memory to the doctor, she is neither; they are “the butterfly” and “the little girl.” The scene ends with the little girl trapping—smashing—the butterfly as she slams the window shut to prevent it from escaping. A single butterfly wing—damaged, disjointed, dejected—floats down to and fro and comes to rest on the little girl’s chest. In this moment the little girl and the butterfly become one and Ageha, now tattooed with a whole swallowtail butterfly and not just a wing, has become whole and herself. From this moment on, Ageha can now set out to repair her community.
As discussed earlier, in signature Iwai style, Swallowtail Butterfly is comprised of predominantly handheld DV, supersaturated, short shots that are edited together to promote a sense of rapid speed and youthful vigor. The camera is always in motion. This scene is no exception, but it stands out as a more methodical, stylized, and paced shot sequence, inspiring a reprieve for introspection for both the characters in the film and the audience. Through the use of music and increasingly shorter shots, including several mini montages, the scene builds to a climax in which all cross cut action sequences reach their apex: her mother and her client achieve orgasm, the little girl slams the window shut on the butterfly, and Ageha on the tattooing table has an emotional breakthrough: she finally cries. Ageha has been holding onto her tears since the beginning of the film. She had never cried over her mother’s death. Ageha’s catharsis enables her to transform from anonymity in the margins (a nameless child without history of heritage) into a sound, whole, and centralized identity that is symbolically manifested by the tattooed pictorial image of the name/identity she was given by Glico and now claims for herself. Ageha means "swallowtail butterfly" in Japanese.