The Shinjuku Death AngelEditor’s note: The Facets packaging includes Peep TV Show, not reviewed here.
Like some half-thought-out Japanese gutter-trash take on one of Celine’s midnight-express rides to hell, Masashi Yamamoto’s Carnival in the Night is a wallow in an urban hell that spins well out of control more times than should be legal in a feature film. It gathers up the excessive bile of its punk ethos and spits it right in the viewer’s face, but the effect is more likely to be bemusement (the occasional giggle, perhaps) than the desired shock and awe. Still, it’s something to behold, when all is said and done, a sociopathic spasming that goes further in plumbing the debilitated core of go-go capitalist Japan than most comparable Western underground filmmakers tend to dare.
But, then, it was the ‘80s.
Yamamoto’s 1982 film (a.k.a. Yami no Carnival) played a brief round on the festival circuit (Berlin, Cannes, Montreal). It then disappeared into the underground film dungeon for about a quarter-century before popping up again in 2007 as part of Facets Multimedia’s Asian Edge series (it’s been re-packaged this year as part of a “Japanese Punk” two-pack along with the 2004 goof Peep TV Show). The film that emerges today is as much a sign of its times as anything that gets lauded and spoofed on some VH1 nostalgia/humor show. Subtle it isn’t, but those weren’t subtle times.
At a time when the Western world was being taught to behold Japan as a sort of samurai behemoth whose terrifying collective business acumen was set to lay waste to the American Dream, its people a collectively regimented force to be reckoned with, Carnival in the Night walked instead with the night-siders who posed a threat to their neighbors, not the West.
The film opens on a Tokyo street scene, the camera crawling in grainy 16mm color sideways as people move about their business in languorous slo-mo. It’s the most basic of moves on the part of Yamamoto, but it proves surprisingly effective, particularly when he reuses it at the film’s conclusion. There’s something haunting in this slow crawl in the sunlight, a zombie-like glaze to everyone as they stalk the streets of the Shinjuku neighborhood. The soundtrack is a din of advertising snippets and overheard conversation, a field of distortion behind this image of workaday regularity.
Yamamoto drops the film into the underground in the next scene, cutting to black and white and jutting his wobbly hand-held camera into a crummy club where various carousers lay in various states of decay around the periphery while an out of tune band plays. There’s a plinky-sounding guitar and a squawky violin backing up the female singer’s heartsick vocals, which don’t seem to be reaching the spiky-haired wastoids busy ignoring her. She ends the set with a clipped “That’s all” before slumping off with the band.
The film snaps briefly back into color to show the singer and apparently single mother, Kumi (Kumiko Ota), back in the cramped apartment she shares with her child, the two playing in an exhausted and obligatory fashion. An arrangement is made to drop the kid off with her ex-husband (played by Ota’s real ex), after which Yamamoto and Kumi are ready to get busy with some serious self-destruction—this is not a mother who has any intention of being around much longer to raise her child.
Most of Carnival in the Night takes place in the desultory nightmare segments that follow, as Kumi faithfully follows the signposts of no-future punk rebellion; a mother no longer, she’s on the prowl. The change in perspective is signaled by a highly theatrical scene where Kumi, just after shearing herself of child and responsibilities, slips into a bathroom and starts remaking herself. The hair gets slicked back, a pair of intimidating sunglasses attached to a face no longer wanting to be seen, and clothing switches to black. The film stock reverts to black and white as well, as it follows Kumi out into the city.
Throughout her night’s journey, Kumi seems as unfocused as the filmmaker, her actions arbitrarily antisocial, ranging from working a cash-for-exchange scam in a store to borrowing a pistol from a basement-dwelling and charts-obsessed anarchist friend with vague plans of setting a huge bomb that will destroy all of Shinjuku. After Kumi goes up on an overpass and starts plugging away with the pistol at an empty phone booth, it seems clear that Yamamoto has as little an idea of what she’ll do next as she does.
This sort of happenstance quality gives Carnival in the Night a particularly arbitrary nature. The bargain-basement handheld 16mm aesthetic (and the distracting camera whir that fills nearly every scene) is all part of this. It seems as though Yamamoto and his gang of non-professional reprobates just grabbed a camera one day and started filming in the teeming streets under the towering generic skyscrapers.
While this can add a documentary-like realism to some sections (the film has actually often been mistakenly identified as a documentary), it also can make certain section drag out at near-insufferable length. This is particularly true in scenes like the one closer to the end when the camera follows Kumi in an anti-rhythmic dance in that same crummy club as before, breath panting and sweat flying. Theoretically it should be entrancing, but the actual result is more enervating than anything else.
Nearly as randomly-generated is Yamamoto’s take on the punk scene that Kumi seems only tangentially associated with (given the vehemence with which her bandmates badmouth her the second she’s out of the room). There’s no interest here in fighting any sort of status quo, or rebelling against the conformity of Japanese society that might be expected. There is in fact hardly any authority to be witnessed here, no police hanging around to badger the punks and social outcasts, no instances of rejection by the society at large. Japan doesn’t appear to be oppressing them, but it does seem to have forgotten they exist.
And so Kumi—along with her soul-mate, a druggy sociopath named Papou whose storyline runs more or less parallel to hers—lashes out at whoever is around. She’s not only unfazed by her anarchist friend’s desire to “blow Shinjuku to hell,” but becomes positively enamored of the idea later on, when none of her other self-destructive projects have come to fruition.
There are hints of the deeper reasons behind Kumi’s urge toward annihilation (she continually clutches her stomach in agony, and by the end of the film appears to be trying to give herself a miscarriage), but nothing is really spelled out. For his part, Papou is just a live-wire, attacking random strangers whenever he feels like it, which is always. He and Kumi seem to be zeroing in on death as the only acceptable way out; all that’s lacking is the right way to make it happen.
Yamamoto plays continually here with deathly, end-of-the-road imagery, though not always in the most thoughtful manner. In one scene with Kumi and Papou, he burns a pile of yen and then swallows the blackened remnants. He then kisses her, Kumi licking the money-ash from her lips. He asks, “What do you want”? She responds, “I don’t know.” There is potential here for something more elemental and powerful but Yamamoto squanders the moment with thudding symbolism and stone-faced performances, rendering it more like a nihilism lesson for 15-year-olds.
For all its irradiated and spiky gloom, about the only moment in Carnival in the Night that holds much resonance is the one that follows the scene in which Kumi (looking for kicks and playing off her androgynous night-prowler sheen) prowls a darkened park, seductively harassing one of the male hustlers. Not long after, the boy is murdered and his fellow hustlers hold a surreal funeral ceremony for him, setting off smoke bombs around his body and stringing it from a tree like some ghostly warning, before setting off in a pack looking for revenge. One couldn’t imagine anybody doing the same were Kumi or Papou to come to the bitter end they so desire.
Carnival in the Night occupies a particularly fraught period during punk’s re-creation, when the initial gaudy fury of the late-‘70s was morphing into the more angular and futuristic gloom of the near-future. Yamamoto’s take on his zombified Shinjuku rebels fit quite nicely into the proto-cyberpunk visions of Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, also released in 1982, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published two years later. As such Yamamoto’s film is mostly grime and fury, signifying little but the desire for an apocalypse that never came—but the sheer force of that need alone results in some shocks to the system that are difficult to ignore.