2005 brought us Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), a completely over-the-top film full of humor, surrealist body horror and… dancing. Three directors—Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki—combined their warped visions to manifest a final product that is incomprehensible in its combination of slapstick comedy sketches, animated sequences, and juicy, alien beings that are reminiscent of William S Burroughs’ wild imagination. There is a plot, of sorts, which follows three brothers in their quests to find companionship, rock n’ roll stardom, and candy bars. The oldest is a high school teacher (Susumu Terajima), insecure yet intent on dating beautiful women. Next comes a man best known as “Guitar Brother,” (Tadanobu Asano) who spends time sitting around his house crooning original songs with his acoustic guitar. The youngest brother is a chubby caucasian kid—who doesn’t appear to really know Japanese—who essentially stares at his singing sibling while stuffing his face with food. The convoluted sequences all lead up to the anxiety and excitement inducing Singles Picnic.
To watch Funky Forest is kind of like flipping through channels on Japanese television. Another comparison could be to a mix tape, as it clearly indicates the end of “side A” about mid-way through the picture. From a westerner’s perspective the linguistic and cultural differences are enough to confuse and evoke a sense of naive awe, which is compounded by the plain weirdness of it. Some characters, such as the abovementioned brothers, and settings, such as a high school classroom, come and go as if an unknown hand is in charge of the remote control. Surely there are viewers who find these disruptions off-putting, but for audiences more used to experimental narrative structures, the editing creates a curious series of vignettes, some of which go on for far too long, some of which deliver hilarious surprise. To the minds of people who are perhaps intoxicated, a bit of liquid or smoky lubrication really helps the film move along, and luckily, the film is casual enough for more passive or hazy viewership.
The beginning of the film leads us to believe we are watching either a comedy, sci-fi, or children’s movie. The Mole Brothers, two not particularly funny comedians, start things off but they are surrounded by an audience who all look exactly alike in a world of CGI potential. This moves along to a little girl trying to control floating orbs with her mind, eventually floating home herself to do homework. The movie can’t seem to decide who our protagonist is, eventually rounding things out to an odd ensemble.
Notti and Takefumi (Erika Nishikado and Ryo Kase) seem to play a large role in things. The young woman and her English teacher flirt, listen to music, and eventually dance together. But, like the three brothers, their narrative is aimless, unless of course, the conclusion is the dance itself. Other spotty narratives in the film seem to conclude in one or more characters dancing, which leads me to conclude that this bizarre trip of a film is really just a dance picture in disguise. Traditional musicals and operas lead us to believe that dance films should be contained in certain structures, but Funky Forest leads us down a different, yet just as legitimate path. Even in Takefumi’s dream—as if a film like this needed the excuse of a dream to present strange content—the main source of anxiety and progress comes from a being who continuously commands him to dance.
Along its frolicking way, the film stops to introduce us to a trio of department store saleswomen on holiday, an animation director in the form of a dog, and a hilarious high school homeroom class (which includes Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi as class president). The other highly notable aspect of Funky Forest is its stomach-chortling inclusion of humanoid body-horror beings, which becomes borderline-obscene in combination with the high school setting. Watching a young girl in a school uniform tug on a large, yellow, furry phallic object coming from a man’s crotch is a bit awkward. This only gets even more uncomfortable when she inserts a slippery tongue-like object into her belly button, which is attached to a television-sized machine that has a very anal-looking orifice. The fact that there is slapstick comedy in the same scene as these odd, fluid-dripping beings makes them confusingly pleasurable in a “what-the-fuck-did-I-just-watch” sort of way. It is like early David Cronenberg taking place at a furry convention, being covered in a late night talk show installment.
Things only get more bizarre when a very young tennis student takes on an ugly old man who throws creepy, crawly creatures from inside his pants at her. Meanwhile, good old Guitar Brother is present as some sort of coach, goading the man on by flicking his fingers at the old man’s low-hanging ball sack below his seat. When one of the little creatures begins sucking at the girl’s arm, everything seems obscene, save for the fact that the entire scenario is completely unreal, dealing with a sexuality that has reflections of, but no basis in reality.
While there are some comparisons to be made, Funky Forest goes places that no other film has. It combines the forces of the three directors to make something absolutely eclectic. Some of Katsuhito Ishii’s earlier work is notable in themselves, such as his voyeuristic, Tarantinoid romp Party 7 (2000), and his weirdo family film The Taste of Tea (2004). Funky Forest takes some elements of Tea, extracts them, and puts them in a bizarro setting. Tadanobu Asano very much plays the same exact character, except for the fact that in Tea his character Ayano Haruno is developed, whereas Guitar Brother is a caricature. However, sometimes films need to thrive on under-developed, caricatured figures in order for larger feelings to arise. These feelings of runaway hilarity, and pleasurable disgust are present in Funky Forest to a degree that cannot be ignored. It is one of the greatest films to come out of Japan so far in the 21st century.