Exploring voyeuristic complicity in “A Snake Of June”

Shinya Tsukamoto’s visionary erotic thriller from 2002 is available on MUBI starting November 10.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s visionary erotic thriller from 2002 is available on MUBI starting November 10.

A surreal tale of voyeurism and repressed sexuality filtered through a monochromatic blue lens, A Snake of June (2002) is a truly warped erotic thriller from director Shinya Tsukamoto. As one of Japan’s most obsessive auteurs, he is best known for his cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and its two sequels, which explore transformative body horror as a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of technology. While less extreme, A Snake of June is still a perverse psychological odyssey from one of cinema’s strangest visionaries; and it’s streaming this month on MUBI along with Tsukamoto’s 2004 drama-thriller Vital on November 11.

Set in a rain-soaked Japanese city, the film centers around Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), a shy phone counselor at a mental health hotline, who lives a monotonous, sexless life with her obsessively clean husband. After receiving an envelope of compromising photos in the mail, Rinko is blackmailed by a former client (played by Tsukamoto himself), who forces her to act out her repressed sexual fantasies. However, as Rinko becomes more confident in expressing her sexuality and her terminally-ill blackmailer becomes concerned about her untreated breast cancer, the power dynamics between blackmailer and victim become increasingly tangled.

Tsukamoto’s signature frantic style is remarkably muted in A Snake of June, and he actually manages to maintain the façade of a somewhat conventional art house thriller for its first 45 minutes. But by the third act, Tsukamoto’s impulses for extremity get the better of him, as he quickly shifts to an increasingly fractured narrative, bio-mechanoid tentacles, and unexplained steampunk-eque snuff theater.

Following a recent digital remastering, it’s now easier than ever to see why A Snake Of June is Tsukamoto’s most beautifully composed film. Shot on 16mm black-and-white, Tsukamoto tinted the filmstock blue in post-production, giving it a lush, perpetual twilit-look reminiscent of silent masters like Carl Th. Dreyer. As the director himself typically shoots and edits his films, his signature shaky handheld camera and feverishly idiosyncratic editing subtly complement the characters’ development.

A passion project for over a decade, Tsukamoto has stated that the film began as a more conventional thriller “about a brutal stalker and a housewife, an immoral tale that would make the juices flow in the mouth. But funnily enough, when it was finished, it had turned into something completely different… It sings of eroticism, but in fact none of the characters have any physical contact with one another.” Well aware of the connection between voyeurism and filmmaking, Tsukamoto continues the tradition of Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) in exploring the complicity of the director and audience’s gaze(s) in the act of voyeurism. Driven more urgently by themes and symbolism than a coherent plot, A Snake Of June is a boldly original work that does more in 77 minutes than most do in two hours.

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