Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Visitor in the Eye (1977)

Original title: Hitomi no naka no houmonsha

Some weird tennis boarding school in Weird Japan™. Aspiring young tennis player Chiaki (Nagisa Katahira) sees her dreams of a tennis heroic future of doing her best shattered when her young teacher Imaoka (Shingo Yamamoto) hits one of her eyes very badly with a ball, blinding her in it. Chiaki does the full brave heroine who doesn’t mind having her dreams crushed routine but Imaoka feels so guilty – a feeling certainly heightened by him being maybe a wee bit inappropriately in love with his student – he’ll do anything to help her get her eyesight back, something your normal men of medicine just won’t be able to help with.

Which leads our teacher friend directly to the man we know and love as Black Jack (house favourite Jo Shishido), rogue surgeon, sometimes mad scientist, and all-around grump. Black Jack wants a lot of money for the operation but most of all, he needs Imaoka to provide a replacement cornea for Chiaki. And, no, he’s not going to take up Imaoka on his offer of one of his own corneas. That’d be stupid! Insert Jo Shishido hitting an innocent table with full force here. Anyway, Imaoka does what any young man in love would do and breaks into the nearest eye bank (that’s what the film calls it, and who are we to doubt its wisdom in things medical?).

The ensuing cornea transplant works out well, and soon Chiaki is playing tennis again, young love is blooming between student and teacher (who, shocked reader, is basically her age, so stay calm) and the film is all set for a treacly happy end after only thirty minutes. Alas, Chiaki starts seeing a goofily sinister guy in a cloak whenever she is close to water. She’s feeling rather drawn to her hallucination too, so when she encounters the man from her vision in real life she’s already more than halfway in love with him. The mysterious man with the dubious taste in clothing is Shiro Kazama (Toru Minegishi who manages to act even more melodramatically than his character is written), as melodramatic a pianist as his cloak wearing habit suggests, and feels as deeply drawn to Chiaki as she is to him. Does he have a rather gothic romance style secret that just might get Chiaki killed? Of course he does, he’s a melodramatic artistic soul wearing a cloak!

After and through some other business I’m not going to get into now, apart from telling you it’s weird, Imaoka and Chiaki’s best friend and tennis double partner Kyoko (played by another house favourite, the wonderful Etsuko Shihomi) try to find out what the heck is up with Chiaki now, and will perhaps learn a terrible secret in time to safe her life.

It might come as a bit of a disappointment that this weird concoction concerning Osamu Tezuka’s wild and wonderful manga character Black Jack in a live action adventure doesn’t actually feature too much of Black Jack himself, particularly since Shishido plays him with the charming and hilarious style of overacting that befits a character as exalted as everyone’s favourite rogue surgeon. It’s really more of a slightly long-ish cameo, but then, the sheer scenery-chewing of Shishido might have eaten up all the beautiful scenery as well as the consciously artificial sets director Nobuhiko Obayashi throws at his audience’s corneas.

Obayashi is well loved around these parts for his epochal – and epochally weird – female coming of age tale Hausu. The Visitor in the Eye is stylistically cut very much from the same cloth as the director’s master piece (not too surprising seeing as they were apparently shot during the course of the same 12 months). So expect the director to have an astonishing control over all the technical aspects of filmmaking, but also expect him to use none of these techniques in a sane – or at least common way – with tonal shifts between the broadest comedy and off-beat gothic romance being the least of the peculiarities a viewer will encounter. There are beautiful shots (Obayashi is a great fan of extremely artificial orange sun light) that are at once nearly painfully kitschy, inspired, and campily ironic, staging of scenes that revels in the artificial nature of everything in this movie, sudden switches in the score from the diegetic to the non-diegetic that might cause one whiplash once one begins noticing them, and so much visual information that seems coded in at least three ways at the same time, uniting conscious camp, absolute earnestness, and plain weirdness.

The script, very much in the spirit of some of Tezuka’s work, loves these shifts between high-brow, low-brow and what the hell just as much, going into short digressions of bizarre humour (even for a viewer by now somewhat accustomed to Japanese tastes in these things), inserting pretty insane cameos (personal favourite is Sonny Chiba rolling in wearing a cowboy outfit and grinning as a loon getting hit on the ass with a pan by Shihomi in a perfectly pointless yet wonderful scene), sudden genre shifts, and a heightened emotional intensity that is as silly as it is awesome.

As regular readers will know, I’m not generally a big fan of the camp approach but the way Obayashi handles it in his better films – a group to which this one most certainly belongs - always does manage to get me, perhaps because the director’s camp is often as beautiful as it is silly and usually seems very much to have an actual point beyond the power of posturing. Because, as Hausu is a film about a young girl growing into a young woman (while fighting off melons, woman-eating pianos and so on), The Visitor in the Eye appears to me very much to be a film about different kinds of love, comparing the oversized kind of ROMANCE(!) that can end in things like double suicide to the just as honest, just as intense, but more quotidian thing a guy like Imaoka has to offer. The former, of course, is rather attractive, but it is also less real than the latter. Sorry, Norah Ephron.

Now, while I think The Visitor in the Eye is a rather wonderful film (if you can cope with the sensory overload or even do as I do and rather relish it after a while), I still think Hausu is Obayashi’s masterpiece, because the latters weirdnesses are even greater yet also more on point with what the film is trying to say, and its tonal shifts feel more organic in its way. But then, this might come down to personal taste. Plus, saying a film is not quite as brilliant as Hausu, is not exactly a put-down in my house.

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