Friday, September 17, 2010

Snakes and Earrings

A young woman's quest for a forked tongue leads to a dangerous love triangle where pain is associated with pleasure, sex is meted out with violence and the desire to possess another culminates in murder. Director Ninagawa Yukio's film version of Kanehara Hitomi's Hebi ni Piasu is a faithful adaptation of the book which won its young author the Akutagawa Prize for literature in 2003, but there's just not enough  material in a  novella about the existential plight of an overindulgent teen  to make for a compelling movie.

Saw this movie approximately a month ago and picked up the book not long after that-- not that I was particularly interested in the book, I distinctly remember passing it up a year or two ago, but then I decided to read it anyway  in hopes of gaining more insight on the story and doing a better review. Turns out reading the book was wholly unnecessary because what you see in the movie is pretty much all there is. The book is grossly overrated, in the same way that I think Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby is undeserving of its international success. If you're the type who's new to this kind of literature then I guess Snakes and Earrings can also shock and impress, but my vote still goes to Kirino Natsuo. 

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Nineteen year-old Lui (Yoshitaka Yuriko) is beautiful, bored and listless. Wandering around the streets of Tokyo at night, she gets invited by a foreigner to step into a club where she meets a heavily pierced and tattooed punk named Ama (Kora Kengo), who shows her his forked tongue. Finding herself inexplicably fascinated with the idea of having a serpentine tongue, Lui spends the night with Ama and immediately moves in with him after resolving to have her own tongue split to match his. Ama introduces Lui to Shiba (ARATA), a tattoo artist and a piercing professional, to get her started on the process by having her tongue pierced.

Not satisfied with just getting a 14g stud clamped in her tongue, Lui decides to push herself further by getting a dragon and a kirin tattooed on her back. She commissions Shiba to design it for her and pays for his services through sexual favors. She carries on an affair with Shiba whilst continuing to come home to Ama, all the while being bored and unhappy with the "normal" life she's been leading. Caught in a whirlwind of angst and despair, Lui  finds herself unable to choose between a man who claims to love her enough to kill for her and one who claims to be so enamored as to be tempted to put an end to her, that is, until one act of violence  becomes the deciding factor in the said stalemate...

Set in contemporary Japan, Snakes and Earrings offers a bleak and trite view of the world as seen through the eyes of a wayward teen, as she immerses herself in what she perceives to be a dark and intriguing subculture. It's a movie that touches on a number topics such as body modification, sado-masochism, possession and nihilism but fails to fully explore any one of these themes, particularly because the main character's sense of aimlessness prevails over everything in it. There's a certain affectation to its narration, the pacing is slow and the turn of events inconsequential; this is one film that banks on showcasing an alternative lifestyle, both for its novelty and its ability to shock those who abide by the norm, the drawback to this is that because there's little or no explanation of its characters' motivations, its alleged honest and brutal depiction of today's times comes off more as an artifice than an actual reflection of the problems that beset today's youth.

"I want to be part of an underground world where the sun doesn't shine, there are no love songs, and the sound of children's laughter is never, ever heard."

Self-absorbed and fickle, its protagonist, Lui, endeavors to become a part of Tokyo's seedy underbelly for unexplained reasons. Her slow and steady path towards self-destruction leads her to expose herself to excruciating pain and/or danger by enjoying the thrill of having casual sex with multiple partners. She's a 21st century wildchild who belongs to a new breed of rebels without a cause, one who's desperately trying to feel alive, one who's fighting the languor taking hold of her system. Reading about her exploits in a 118-paged novella is one thing, but seeing her vacuous life unfold onscreen is a whole other finicky ordeal.

The main problem with this movie is that it has a female lead that is running on empty-- she fails to garner sympathy or elicit understanding, mainly because she herself admits that she's depressed and disgruntled over nothing. There's nothing to be fixed, no solution to be found, because there's no problem to begin with. All her choices are made out of caprice; her adventures, all meaningless and pointless exercises designed to distract her from her self-imposed misery. In this regard, Snakes and Earrings is no different from any post-modern literature or cinematic feature about troubled teens or anguished adults who seem to have lost their footing. It captures the alienation and early disaffection of a new generation, offering a cocktail of sex, tattoos and alcohol in lieu of the prototypical combination of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. What makes it such a forgettable venture is that it does absolutely nothing in providing any insight as to the cause or design behind this ennui, neither does it break new ground in terms of its genre, given the sheer volume of films available on how hard it is to be a kid growing up in today's society.

Told in roman à clef by a beautiful and nubile author whose face appears in full color as an endsheet to the book, it's no surprise that this fantastical account of a person's immersion into an oft misunderstood and grossly misrepresented segment of society gained so much acclaim and attention despite its meager content. It's because people will always be drawn to the unknown, the bizarre, and Kanehara Hitomi's Snakes and Earrings offers a hefty dose of a world wherein a  person can claim to love a man without bothering to know his name, where teeth yanked out of someone's mouth is offered as a love token, and where the urge to kill is strongest during the act of intercourse. It's a fascinating and disturbing world for those who wish to witness it vicariously, unfortunately, while some choice words may prove to be adequate to describe a certain event or emotion on the written page, the same cannot be said of the material once it is brought to the big screen.

From its near silent opening where Tokyo is seen through Lui's vacant eyes to the angst-filled monologue devoid of any emotional impact, this movie makes the viewer feel more like a detached observer than a would-be confidante. The screenplay is bogged down by the hapless musings of a young woman who's offensively naked of any depth or substance-- on paper it reads like an adolescent's fatalistic tirade, one that discusses the acute feeling of helplessness that envelops her to the point of  wanting to die so as to be rid of all this suffering; on screen, what the viewer sees is an inordinate amount of moping, interrupted only by harried sex with mild bondage, followed by an incomprehensible resort to binge-drinking. Verily, what might capture the imagination or tickle one's fancy while reading the book might not have the same effect  visually because a line or two of text on an abstract concept does not necessarily translate well onscreen especially when the message or thought behind it is ambiguous and illusory.

Underwhelming as a whole and at times agonizingly insular as told from a lost child's limited perspective, director  Ninagawa Yukio's latest cinematic feature doesn't have the same emotional draw as his previous works-- it doesn't have the palpable tragedy of Waru Iemon nor the quiet complexity and  absorbing characterization of Ao no Honō. Chances are, it would probably be best remembered as the movie where Yoshitaka Yuriko artistically bared it all and yet somehow still managed to look dull and unappealing. The young actress just doesn't appear to have the range or perhaps the experience from which to make something out of this poorly written role. She puts on what most would consider a brave performance but she doesn't go beyond portraying Lui as this plastique, soulless doll. More often than not, she sounds and looks like a  spoiled and whiny brat instead of a tormented, world-weary individual. Furthermore, she's rather flat and unconvincing when it comes to the more erotic elements of the story, but then again, it's no easy feat to visually interpret the masochistic tendencies of a person who gets aroused by a needle stuck through her tongue as the book would have you believe:

"The next moment there was a clamping sound and shivers much greater than those of an orgasm shot through my entire body. Goosebumps ran up my arms and my body went into a slight spasm. My stomach tightened and for some reason so did my crotch, where I felt an ecstatic, tingling sensation."

Again, it's easier to make use of words to describe a particular sensation but bringing something like that from page to screen requires an actress to convey so much more than just drawing tears in her eyes with an expression that  looks like a half-wince-half-grin, the same goes for most of the sexual encounters in this movie. ARATA does slightly better, playing Shiba with a calm facade to mask the cruel temperament of his character. Soft-spoken and yet still menacing with delusions of being a god in his own right, he does well in balancing the severity of having a face full of piercings and a body like a canvas with his seemingly aloof and professional stance as a tattoo artist. Kora Kengo on the other hand plays Ama to dopey perfection. He's a misfit by way of looks and yet conventional in his everyday living; he's sweet and excitable, prone to violence and yet still naive when it comes to weighing the consequences of his actions. Watching the movie, it's quite clear that all three actors performed to the best of their abilities, the only catch is that none of them was ever able to rise above the shortcomings of the material that they were working with. As such, all three characters remain strangers up till the end of the movie, ultimately making this viewing experience a hollow and senseless journey. 


  1. Strange that i love the movie for the things you disliked it. Great review, I really like your writing style!!
    Didn't read the book but I was pleased my how the film doesn't try to create meaning where there's just emptiness. There's no rebellion, no cause and no sense and I liked the way the movie just presented the protagonists actions or lack of those.
    Like with the bland SM scenes...she didn't even get anything from those encounters, no real pain, no real pleasure just some small abuse - more reason for self-hate and binge-drinking. There is no reflection and no driving force for that girl. Ama was a little relief but she couldn't bear how normal and nice he was so she became destructive and went to Shiba maybe hoping he'd make her feel something, but in vain. So in the end there is also nothing, no morale, no punishment, no finale furioso but that's exactly what made this movie memorable for me.
    Agree with you on the actors. ARATA and Kora were really good and Kitagawa was mediocre but somehow that was just fine for portraying a passive character without any depth. XD

  2. Thanks arakira, you're very kind. :)

    You've raised very important points and I totally see where you're coming from. I initially thought that the overall feel of the movie was part of its design but the more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I was with it-- maybe it was because of the way Yuriko played her role. It was so easy to label her as a ditz or a whore and I was hoping that there would me more dimension to the character.

    The reason why the movie doesn't come up with an explanation for Lui's actions is because the book didn't provide any. It seemed to me that the book was more about showing off than imparting a message or an observation of a youth subculture. It's not at all surprising that it won the award since Ryu Murakami's in the judging panel and the book's style and subject matter is similar to the very work that won him the same prize a little over 30 yrs ago, Almost Transparent Blue. What I didn't like is that there was no context to it, I mean, even Larry Clark's Kids had HIV as a sobering element and at least Danny Boyle's Trainspotting had one character who you would root for to break away from the emptiness and the heroin addiction. Snakes and Earrings on the other hand, is somewhat hollow to the core, in terms of emotional impact, it's a notch above A Blue Automobile but for some reason, the characters in it failed to move me.

  3. Looking at that bald headed due with the three studs in his chin makes me cringe *major ouchies*

    I enjoyed reading your review but will probably steer clear of the film because of your rating & well, the bodily piercings lol

    Btw, loving the new look of your blog xDD It looks so clean!

  4. Zooey, interesting comparison with 'A Blue Automobile', also ARATA and as a movie even more empty. I couldn't really love that one because it was too static and the characters, especially ARATA's were underdevelopped and unbalanced but even there I found scenes and characters (Miyazaki's) that I liked. It's like a special Japanese genre...Empty Youth Film that has a certain appeal for me. But then I really do like slower Japanese movies. My all time favorite is 'Strawberry Shortcakes' ;)
    I agree with you on the characters. They don't move you, they're not loveable (even Ama, he's cute but also a bit too psycho and exaggerated) and still it's a movie that moved me enough to write comments here after watching it like a year ago...and for Yuriko...her character is just a bitch wallowing in self-pity and boredness, too shallow to even hate her.

    Kids and Trainspotting are Western cult movies and somehow very cliche. For me Kids is pretty cheesy and trainspotting is a comedy and the mood for watching those is completely different.

    Maybe I should read the novel to understand where you're coming from. This could be one of these rare cases where it's better not to read the book and just enjoy the movie...I don't really think too highly about Murakami Ryu...I enjoyed 'Coin Locker Babies' but I disliked 'In the Miso Soup' and '69'

  5. @ jicks -- You might eventually want to check out this movie because of the actors in it. Maybe you'll see it sometime for one reason or another, who knows? ;)

    Thanks for the positive feedback on the template. Was going to use Oulipo but I had problems with the placement of the images so I ended up picking this one. Glad it looks clean, that was what I was going for totally. :)

    @ arakira - I had the exact same impression of A Blue Automobile... I mean, what the heck was the main character's problem playing around (with sisters) for crying out loud?! LOL x) And you're right about there being such a genre showcasing empty and scarred lives. Excellent choice citing Strawberry Shortcakes btw. One of the main difference between that film and and this one is that the four girls in it were a little more grounded and believable, you see them wrestle with their day-to-day lives even though all of them were in an emotional slump and stuck at a certain point without knowing where to go. Lui on the other hand has a similar dilemma but somehow it felt like she was trapped in her own sensationalized little world. There's just her and the two male characters.

    I just find it hard to really love this movie since it came after stuff like Harmful Insect, The Blue Light and All About Lily Chou Chou, the last 2 being my personal favorites. And although Kids and Trainspotting give off a different vibe from this movie, all I can say is that if I'm going to watch a person piss his/her life away, I'd more or less like to have it placed in context. Take for instance Ningen Shikaku and Villon's Wife, coming into it, you have an idea that it's about an artist who's struggling with himself and his art, at a time when the world as he knew it was in the cusp of economic and cultural change. Minor details and stuff like that just make it easier for me to appreciate the movie.

    Overall, I think I enjoyed reading the book more than watching the movie. It was a fast read; entertaining enough with details about tongue-splitting and piercings and I guess it's more forgivable to read thru the angst than watch it on screen. I'm also not a fan of Murakami Ryu... too much hate and destruction can suck the life out of you. Not exactly leisure reading, if you know what I mean. ^^

  6. I also love All about LCC. One of the most facinating movies out there. Gaichu is one hell of a movie. An exeptional study of a lonely youth failing to find a place in a group-based society. Miyazaki and Aoi Yu are among the few Japanese actresses that can really act and they're both great here. Still I needed to be in really good mood to make it through that movie-and got rewarded;)

    Haven't watched A Blue Light but now I might XD

    The Villons Wife and Ningen Shikaku are somehow a different genre. It's about artists and dysthemia. Those movies are on a different level as they deal with more complex characters and psychological problems. For me VW was one of the best movies in recent years but I'm really biased towards Asano.

    I started Ningen Shikaku cause I was curious about how they adapted Dazai's story and about Toma's acting but then I decided to wait for subs...Are they out yet?!

    Atm I'm to busy to concentrate on movies like those but I'm excited about some Fall Season dramas...hope they won't be disappointmens as most dramas in the last 2 years...XD

  7. (Oooh new look new look!!! Very classy. Can I say I'm really loving it? =D)

    Oh -- it's the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! XD

    Heh heh I think I got a little depressed while reading your review because you described the generational ennui so well. I do second arakira, I love how you write -- evocative but very lucid. :-)

    Ah these poor wayward self-mutilating kids, tsk tsk. "Now go home, finish high school, and reach! your! potential!" (lol that was from Two Weeks Notice)

    And I second everything jicks said. That baldie dude looked positively revolting -- like The Mummy but badder & more reptilian. Ugh, how can you have sex with someone who looks like that? lulz

    I know it's a bit random, but the (tattoos + seamy underbelly of major Asian city + sex/drugs/etc. + crime) reminded me of John Burdett's novel "Bangkok Tattoo" from his Bangkok trilogy. Have you come across them? Interesting reads, though I prolly wouldn't go back for seconds.

  8. @arakira

    The Villons Wife and Ningen Shikaku are somehow a different genre. It's about artists and dysthemia. Those movies are on a different level as they deal with more complex characters and psychological problems.

    Exactly, which is why there's more to these movies than just depicting the emptiness of living, add to it the social setting of the story and you have something that's more engaging and worth viewing.

    It's true that the said movies technically don't belong in the same category or genre as Snakes and Earrings but I'm of the opinion that the end product is the same-- which means they're all, in some level, dark and depressing films that explore an aspect of the human condition or delve into an aspect of the human psyche. What differentiates one from the other by way of emotional impact would depend on the the material and its execution. Like how well do we get to know the characters and the environment they're in, and more importantly, how effective the actors were in portraying their roles in the film. This is why Gaichu and Strawberry Shortcakes would always trump Snakes and Earrings because as lost as the characters may be in it, a movie cannot just be plain hollow or empty. This is also why I think Villon's Wife would probably get more favorable reviews from critics than Ningen Shikaku-- the former is set in postwar Japan and has Asano Tadanobu while the latter only has the distinction of being a semi-autobiographical account of Osamu Dazai's battle with his inner demons (which btw can also be said of Villon's Wife... ah the beauty of the I-novel...).

    Last I checked, Ningen Shikaku didn't have subtitles. I kinda watched parts of it raw since I'm a bit familiar with the story. Come on, the main character sees monsters (sort of), survives a double suicide and sees the world thru alien eyes... how could I resist? Like you, I was curious to see how well Toma did in it. I think he did okay, the problem is, it wasn't particularly spectacular or captivating. The boy has potential to say the least, but I had trouble shaking off his image as an idol... so it was kinda hard to take him seriously. It also didn't help knowing that he's currently gracing the covers of Osamu Dazai's novels as part of the movie's publicity. I'll watch it again when the subs are out. Maybe by then, I'd like Toma more.

    I don't blame you for having a bias towards Asano, the man's a foreign cinema favorite after all and he's definitely on a league of his own. :)

    Can't say I'm looking forward to the new crop of dramas this season but I'm with you in hoping that they'll be better than the ones that came out in the last 2 years. :)

  9. @ E.G.

    Wow, classy and clean. Can't say I can look for anything more in a blog template. Lol. I wasn't sure if I was gonna stick with this big leaf thingy but I'm at the moment too lazy to change it.

    Yes, indeed. She is the girl with the dragon tattoo and a big hole in her tongue. Why can't these kids just buck up, finish school and get a 9 to 5 job like the rest of us? Ah old age is getting to me, I'm fast becoming one of "the enemy". xD

    Thanks for finding my blog entries lucid. I try... but I really hate to write, which is why I haven't had a new entry in weeks since I can't seem to finish writing one. I have like 3 reviews on draft and can't seem to reign in my ADHD to focus on just one (sigh*).

    As for the reptilian baldie, let's just chalk it up to how committed an actor ARATA is. I will always remember him as Smile in one of my all time favorite movies, Ping Pong. You can google him and see how he looks like normally. Though I have to agree with you and jicks-- it's a bit hard to imagine being attracted to him with all the tattoo and piercings. I guess it's all a matter of taste. Some people like boys with shaved brows and glitter suits, so who's to say that this dude ain't gorgeous? x)

    Haven't read "Bangkok Tattoo" but I'll make sure to be on the look out for it. Is it something you'd recommend reading? I've read a few novels that are somewhat violent and graphic-- pretty much stuff I don't plan to read again. Does it belong in the same category?

  10. Lol I totally get what you're saying about having ADHD and trying to finish those multiple drafts. Don't you just hate it when you're 80% done and inspiration suddenly dries up and you don't know when it'll return -- maybe next week, maybe never? lulz

    Okay I looked up that ARATA guy and ohmygoodness you're so right, he looks like an actual normal human being in his other movies!!! Um, did he go all Methody for the Snakes and Earrings role and actually GET HIS SKIN PIERCED??? Or were they just clip-ons and the tattoos just the kind that Wentworth Miller got for Prison Break? =D

    Nah, I really wouldn't rec Bangkok Tattoo unless you want to read about corrupt cops and even more corrupt military men and drug-dealers and brothel workers and slums -- plenty of those in Manila anyway, lol. The protagonist (a Thai-Am cop whose mom runs a brothel -- oh no, conflict!!!) is actually very likable, but I don't see the novels themselves becoming contemporary classics any time soon. XD

  11. Right now, I'm kinda leaning towards maybe never... Lol x)

    I don't think ARATA actually got his skin pierced, I've seen him in a drama this year and I haven't noticed any holes in him, same with the tattoos... I don't know. My guess is that they used something similar to the ones you rub on your skin with water-- because damn they were ugly. They didn't look like they were done by a professional at all.

    I'll take your word on Bangkok Tattoo, sounds like I can put off reading it then. x)

  12. Yuriko very cuty. i like her very much

  13. Like this movie. like Yuriko very much.

  14. Good for you. I find that I like seeing her more on television than in movies.