Standard rules of film criticism don’t tend to apply to the films of Shinya Tsukamoto. Controversial and groundbreaking from the start (with interesting and complex films such as Tetsuo), Tsukamoto’s work is always filled with difficult imagery and challenging themes. Constantly moving between avant garde and mainstream cinema, Tsukamoto focuses on issues of sexuality, gender and repression within Japanese society. A Snake of June is an interesting (if potentially problematic) snapshot of the lives of a “typical” Japanese couple and their encounters with a voyeuristic stranger.
I say problematic because the events in this film are either misogynistic or empowering, depending on your point of view. Tsukamoto offers no simple explanation because he deliberately seeks to provoke, to invite discussion on issues of sexual repression and identification in Japanese society. Perhaps tellingly, Tsukamoto places himself in the role of primary antagonist, playing the potentially dangerous voyeur who inserts himself into the lives of the Japanese couple. Rather than retreating behind the camera, Tsukamoto takes ownership of his position and attempts to highlight the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema.
Though the film is filled with provocative images, A Snake of June never descends into titillation or gratuity. His use of stark blue-filtered black and white help to ground the film, lending it both realism and, somewhat ironically, surrealism. This dichotomy resurfaces in several bizarre voyeuristic sequences, seemingly from a different film. This mix of reality and surreality, a trademark of Tsukamoto’s films, serves to unnerve the viewer and helps to create a lasting impression.
Is this film misogynistic or does it promote female empowerment? Is it arguing for or against the loss of sexual identity in Japanese society? Though there are no easy answers offered in this challenging and often disturbing film, A Snake of June and director Tsukamoto are not afraid to ask difficult questions. After all, isn’t that the basis of interesting filmmaking?