JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Ageha organizes the Yen Town children to counterfeit enough funds to buy back the deed to the Yen Town Club. Dozens of children gather to hand over yen to Ageha. Unfortunately, because they are children, there will be no sale.

A nosy journalist uncovers Glico’s secret and confronts Glico in her dressing room. She shows Glico an old Polaroid photo of Glico’s days as a Yen Town prostitute. Ironically, just as Glico had intended although not in this context, she is clearly identified thanks to her butterfly tattoo.

Feihong is caught again by the police, this time for trying to exchange one of the counterfeit ¥10,000 notes in a public machine. By now, the police are aware of the large scale counterfeiting as the phony ¥10,000 notes have appeared all over the city. Caught in the act, Feihong becomes the primary suspect for organizing the counterfeiting ring.

Meanwhile, Ryou Ryanki’s thugs track the counterfeit bills back to the source of production: the scrap yard. They rally at the yard for a showdown. Instead of the concrete buildings of Tokyo in the distance, here we see what’s behind that structure and order: a violence and organzied force, albeit through visual metaphor.

Ran handily wipes out Ryou Ryanki’s thugs with a well-placed rocket launcher and a shotgun.

The police are convinced that Feihong is the mastermind behind the counterfeit bills. He is “processed” in the manner of an illegal immigrant without rights—he is beaten within an inch of his life.

Beaten and broken, Feihong dies alone in his dark jail cell.

The end of the film is sunny and brightly lit, as if the film has brought all the dark secrets of Yen Town/Tokyo out into the light. Ageha and Glico weave funerary wreaths in honor of Feihong.

Glico sees Ageha’s tattoo for the first time and acknowledges her passage into adulthood.

Ran and the Yen Town kids build a funeral pyre for Feihong out of an abandoned car and the piano from the club.

Ageha, Ran, and the Yen Town kids throw the remaining counterfeit yen onto the funeral pyre. Yen has as much value to them now as the artificial paper money used in the opening scene with Ageha’s mother.

The film ends with a chance encounter between Ageha and Ryou Ryanki. Ageha has figured out that Ryou Ryanki is Glico’s brother, although she keeps it a secret. Of her own volition, she gives the tape back to Ryou Ryanki—a final break with the power the “almighty yen” has over her.

 

 

Conclusion: Why Swallowtail Butterfly?
Then again, why not Swallowtail Butterfly?

The overwhelming criticisms within the review literature of Swallowtail Butterfly attack its aesthetics—too “pop” and “youthy”—and its content—meaningless and illusory. Richie is particularly disdainful of the film. His opines that the film “sounds like fun, but nothing is made of anything” (Movie Guide) He points out Iwai’s filmmaking start as a music video director and critiques the use of “super-fast cutting” in which “the whole thing eventually turns into a big, long, heavy MTV.” Eminent film scholar Sato Tadao heavily criticized the film for hinting at a “global message” but “falling short of any real content or meaning” and “failing to accurately represent a real cultural milieu in Japan” (translations mine) (Suwaroteru, 50). On the other hand, Japanese critic Onitsuka Daisuke seems to be one of the outstanding voices regarding Swallowtail. He nods to the style of the film, calling it “irresistibly charming”, and notes that the aesthetics of the film may have distracted other critics and scholars who seem to find the film “very stylish and that’s all...they think Iwai’s films have no content” (Poetic Sensibility, 4).

Indeed, Iwai is often now characterized as a “pop” director who has fallen far from the promise of his first film Love Letter. Unlike his later films, the aesthetics of Love Letter follow a more conventional approach, slow pans, long takes, soft lighting, and continuity editing. After Love Letter, Iwai was touted as a new talent, but has been since dropped because his filmmaking style and content seem to have developed undesirable characteristics. For example, Tom Mes and Nicholas Rucka have criticized other films using Iwai as a staple pop product in statements like “[such and such a film is an] inconsequential time-waster from the Iwai school of hipness” (Midnight Eye Roundup) and “[such and such a film contains] characters that populate fluff of the Iwai variety” (Princess in an Iron Helmet).

It would appear that Iwai’s film fails in the eyes of critics on two counts: aesthetics and content. This may seem to be nothing more than merely two fundamental aspects of cinema commonly criticized, but given the history of Japanese film criticism, it is the particularity of the aesthetics and content in Swallowtail Butterfly that seem to be so objectionable. Rather than relying on imagery that is easily traceable back to Japanese culture and a Japanese canon, Iwai creates his story as a fantasy construct: a Yen Town that is at once Japan and is not. A Japanese film that is not a Japanese film. A new Japanese cinema that is not New Japanese Cinema. The film is even a way of making a film that may be Japanese nor not—although hiring Japanese staff, crew, and actors, Iwai shot the film in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Shanghai, Australia, and Singapore, filmed scenes with multiple cameras rolling at the same time (unlike the more typical one-camera approach in Japan), used U.S. screenwriting software, organized management of the film with one, central producer (rather than the multi-producer standard in the contemporary Japanese industry), and did all the editing and dubbing of the film in Los Angeles (Aoki, 46-47). The very process of making the film, according to his producer Kawai Shinya, was 30% Japanese and 70% Hollywood (although I think it is safe to question the “Hollywood” aspect here and simply rephrase that as 70% “unconventional”) (Aoyama, 46).

Perhaps this creates a source of confusion, perhaps coded as derision, for critics looking for elements in Iwai’s film in accordance with the conventions of Japanese film study. Although set in “Japan” and occasionally using ordinary Japanese objects and, at times, Japanese language, these elements are made strange by both their decentered and reconfigured usage—a narrative that focuses on the representation and creation of non-Japanese persons in a constructed realm that is more pastiche of nonspecific industrial products than ethnically or racially informed culture, as well as the outright denial of these affects as being Japanese.

It seems to me that Swallowtail is not, as so many film critics have suggested, functionally bankrupt and devoid of meaning. Quite the contrary, the film’s very premise within the opening scene and again in Ageha’s rite of passage is wrought with meaning, even heavy-handedly so. It may be that the film does not convey the right kind of meaning or aesthetic quality that criticism and scholarship of Japanese cinema expects and valorizes. A multitude of readings exist in this film for its fans, not critics or scholars (although we can be movie lovers, too). The overwhelming support for Iwai’s films—the numerous popularity polls and audience awards associated with his films[19] [open notes in new window] and their high ratings on online review sites, strongly suggests that there is something at work within this film that carries a great deal of meaning for its spectators. As a film about foreigners living in Japan, fantasy allegory or otherwise, there is certainly a melodramatic nugget that rings true in my heart, currently a foreigner living in Japan. And so, too, for non-foreigners living in Japan: the film tied for 6th place (among Japanese movies) in domestic box office profits in 1996, earning approximately Y600 million (~$5.4 million U.S.D) (Kawasaki, 157). [20] Certainly, at sixth place, the film was not unpopular.

Since Love Letter, Iwai may have fallen out of favor with many reviewers, but Iwai has certainly not fallen out of popularity with spectators. Even more than ten years later, Swallowtail is still praised among a general audience and an increasingly Western audience. As mentioned previously, user reviews at imdb.com have given the film an average of 7.5 of 10 stars (1,634 votes) (Suwaroteiru). Interestingly, imdb users rank members of the canon as follows: Miike Takashi’s Audition (Odishon,1999) with 7.4 stars (19,005 votes), Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure (1997) with 7.4 stars (2,430 votes), Kitano Takeshi’s Brother (2000) with 7.1 stars (10,155 votes, although some of his other films fare better), and Aoyama Shinji’s Sad Vacation (2007) with 6.9 stars (157 votes) (see respective imdb citations). Although these ratings do not remain constant, and some films of these directors have higher and lower ratings that those I am directly citing here, I believe it is noteworthy that Swallowtail, though perhaps not as widely seen, is actually more well liked among spectators with enough passion for films that they are willing to rate them online. Imdb is but one, mainstream and easily accessed by teachers and students, space online in which Swallowtail enjoys user-generated praise. I suppose on the one hand there may be no accounting for taste, but on the other, maybe there is.

The reviews, in their own limited, Internet way, intimate what is so compelling to viewers:

  • “There are only few movies that are so emotionally powerful and complex, without being kitschy and this is the best example that they exist. It has been a long time ago that I [sic] last saw such an [sic] tragically wonderful, beautiful picture. It contains all that stands for living. And shows a camerawork which is improving the message of each scene and centering on the great actors without unnecessary effects. This masterpiece has it all: tragedy, humor, violence, humanity, and it shows how brutal and wonderful life can be.”
    —user “Itto Ogami” (from Germany), 10 of 10 stars
  • “This is the kind of movie leaving you more than once with a big smile in your face and tears in your eyes, just because this moment is so...I don't know...joyful.”
    —user “obsidian-8” (from Germany), 10 of 10 stars
  • “The different tones of the movie that follow the shift in genre and the sometimes radical changes of scale that the narrative takes in are all blended skillfully, provoking a wide range of emotional responses. The performances are all excellent, and the characters very interesting and well defined…In essence, this is basically a masterful film that shows extraodinary [sic] skill from Shunji Iwai as a director. Watching it is a reminder of just how far from the potential of the medium most movies fall.”
    —user “Simon Booth” (from the U.K.), 10 of 10 stars
  • “Yentown is a type of film that gets even better on multiple viewings. The story is told in a non-linear way which can make the film seem a bit confusing, at least when seen for the first time. There are elements (and even characters) in Yentown used mainly as metaphors, and to careless viewer it may appear that the film doesn't quite properly tie up it's threads. But if the viewer has the courage and patience to watch a film quite different from our Western tradition, Yentown will reward him/her with an unique blend of emotion, wit and beauty.”
    —user “The Truth” (from Helsinki, Finland), 9 of 10 stars
  • “I love and adore this film from the gut to the heart to the mind. On every level it hits a nerve, and my only regret is that this hefty piece of work isn't longer still because the characters get so far under your skin and burrowed into your soul that when the credits roll you feel as though the vacation has come to an end and you're bidding your friends farewell.”
    —user “frankgaipa” (from California), 10 of 10 stars.

In short, for its most vociferous advocates, it would seem that Swallowtail elicits an emotional—often visceral—experience. It does so, according to the range of reviews, through a combination of powerful aesthetics and thought-provoking content, and in fact they seem to reinforce one another. When a film is successful enough at reaching its viewers to provoke an embodied experience, it becomes an important text worthy of attention. As such, it seems appropriate to wonder at its omission in a contemporary canon and question why it is, for the most part, being selected against. And what other films are we overlooking? Are we still, despite strides in the field and in the classroom, still bound by constraints of a high (art) vs. low (pop) culture wars?

As a teaching text, Swallowtail is incredibly useful, particularly as a departure point at the beginning of a survey or topics class. To begin with—perhaps because of its “edgy” camerawork (that is certainly not mainstream, but regardless at least familiar and readable to the current generation of college students), fast-paced editing that, despite the speed, still follows the rules of continuity editing, the mishmash of language that includes English, and base as a coming of age narrative featuring young people—students, in my experience, are not immediately ostracized by issues of enigmatic culture or theoretical incomprehension. Quite the contrary, they actually like it, find it compelling, and engage with it as a text: they have unprompted things to say about it. Using Swallowtail Butterfly as the first in a survey course allows us to circumvent reliance on covering, however cursory, the mechanics of classical Hollywood cinema, thereby relieving both a cumbersome burden of class time misspent, and the theoretical implications of position Japanese cinema as the “other” cinema. It bears traces of both Gerow’s (contemporary cinema of “others”) and Standish’s (contemporary cinema as spectacle) arguments. But, despite, perhaps the “newness” of technique, the narrative structure of the film is quite “old”: it is a musical and it is a melodrama. At once a film of excess and control. Of Othering and introspection. Of identity lost and identity found. As such, Swallowtail, I propose, is not a film that should be overlooked or derided as “pop,” “youthy,” or “MTV-esque.” Doesn’t its aesthetics, its constructed representations, and production context suggest a rather exceptional film with a most valuable use in the classroom in that it challenges our (students and scholars alike) very notions of esoteric, enigmatic Japanese cinema or even a Japanese national cinema?

It has not been my intention in this essay to simply make a case for other educators to include what, admittedly, is one of my favorite films into the classroom. I do not mean to speak as a fan defending a text. Swallowtail is not really a unique or particularly special text in the whole of contemporary Japanese cinema. Or, perhaps, in the present case, the special quality of the text, I hope, is to inspire discussion, debate, and reconsideration of how we select representative texts across a discipline. Why do we seem to still conform to an educational standard based in omission?

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