May 5, 2022
By Tom Wilmot.
While misguided pre-conceptions have resulted in many Japanese films being flippantly and unjustly branded as ‘weird’ or ‘perverted’, I struggle to find two words more wholly appropriate to describe Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) The Warped Forest (2011). Released in the West for the first time by Third Window Films, this pair of outrageous films epitomises the occasional queerness of Japanese cinema that attracts overseas audiences.
Where on earth to begin with Funky Forest? For a start, the film doesn’t follow a traditional plot and is instead made up of loosely connected short films. The one narrative through-line for the majority of these shorts is the presence of the so-called Guitar Brothers, an odd trio consisting of Masaru (Tadanobu Asano), Masaichi (Susumu Terajima), and Masao Tanaka (Andrew Alfieri) – the latter of the three being a young Caucasian boy who appears to understand little if any Japanese. The escapades of the brothers and their associates play out more like a TV variety special, complete with commercial breaks, opening and closing titles, and even a three-minute interlude – enough time to let your mind catch up with your eyes.
Helmed by Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki, the film is a concoction of each director’s individual visions. Every short gets progressively stranger and more grotesque as we race through the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Ishii’s segments are easily the most accessible, despite featuring spiritual trips to other dimensions. One of his stand-outs is a disastrous singles’ picnic, a dating event organized by the Guitar Brothers that’s about as desperate as you might. Susumu Terajima and Yoshiyuki Morishita feature heavily in Ishii’s sequences, and both actors evoke some of the loudest laughs, particularly whenever the latter slides into an uncontrollable rage. It would be remiss not to mention that Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno also features in Ishii’s bits, playfully taking part in the chaotic ‘Home Room’ segments. While the use of CGI is most prominent in Ishii’s scenes, it’s worth noting that the special effects, in general, hold up remarkably well, as most are executed seamlessly.
Miki is the self-confessed pervert of the directorial trio, and this shines through in his highly suggestive and often grotesque segments. The puppet work here is as demented as it isal, with Cronenbergian fantastic body horror crossing high-school band practice. Whether you’re left gagging or laughing, Miki’s visceral imagery is sure to summon total confusion at the very least. It’s a similar case for the surreal visions of Hajime Ishimine, whose few segments are centerd around an eccentric young couple recounting odd dreams. While Ishimine’s sequences are less visually jarring than those of his co-directors, they still have an uncanny atmosphere. That being said, his lengthy beachside dance number marks one of the most soothing scenes in what is an otherwise chaotic film. While every short is equally strange, each director’s cinematic interests and narrative preferences shine through, keeping the film varied without it feeling disjointed.
Six years later, Shunichiro Miki unleashed the perverted ideas that had long plagued his mind and directed what is, as of writing, his last feature film, The Warped Forest. While unrelated to Funky ForestMiki’s solo feature is a spiritual sequel of sorts that makes for an excellent companion piece to the 2005 film. The Warped Forest received little to no theatrical release both at home and overseas, so it’s a rare viewing treat for more than just its off-the-wall content. We’re guided through a loosely connected narrative in which we follow the everyday lives of villagers striving for personal fulfillment. Of course, not everything is that straightforward, as Miki presents an utterly surreal world that must be seen to be believed. A few of the countless absurdities in The Warped Forest include giant and small people co-habiting in harmony, the popularity of a nourishing fruit that grows on what I can only describe as ‘tree-women’, and a local currency of nuts called Poccos that grow out of people’s belly buttons. All of this is overseen by an upside-down, pyramid-shaped monolith in the sky that facilitates an expensive practice called ‘dream-tinkering’. Don’t worry, I’m just as confused.
As well as being over an hour shorter than Funky Forest, The Warped Forest is also entirely of Miki’s making. Yes, this means that things are somehow slimier and even more suggestive than before. I must stress that this is not a criticism, for the singularity and cohesion of Miki’s twisted vision is only to be admired. From the suspiciously shaped fruit – not to mention where it’s come from – to a brothel that offers monstrously unique pleasures, Miki’s film blends the sensual and the gross, harking back to Japan’s ‘erotic, grotesque, nonsense’ movement of the early 20th century. The director’s parallel world is brought to life using updated special effects and a more vibrant color palette, presenting it as a fairy-tale land that could only exist in dreams.
A large part of what makes Funky Forest and The Warped Forest work so well is that there are zero attempts to explain or rationalise anything that is happening. Instead, we’re bluntly presented with absurd scenarios that are played completely straight by everyone involved. It would be so easy for either film to be a wacky, slapstick comedy, but you never once get the impression that the actors aren’t taking it one-hundred per cent seriously. The commitment to dry humour and complete lack of any explanation is wonderful, as the feeling of being constantly baffled is part of what makes these crazy films so enjoyable.
After getting through both films, you’re likely to have many questions, and fortunately, the creative minds behind them have contributed to a couple of revealing audio commentaries. Ishii, Miki, and Ishimine are a joy to listen to as they poke fun at and attempt to explain Funky Forest. You won’t gain much insight into exactly what is happening on-screen, but you will find yourself laughing along with the mischievous trio as they baulk at how their bonkers film got made in the first place. In a refreshingly self-deprecating commentary, the directors jokingly plea for rich benefactors to fund a sequel (God, please let this happen) while sounding off their fantasy cast for an unlikely Hollywood remake.
Shunichiro Miki also lends his voice to the audio commentary for The Warped Forest, in which he chortles through explanations behind his perverted visions. The amount of thought that the director has put into the film’s complex world is astounding, although not all of his narrative intentions are translated to the screen clearly. Accompanying Miki’s commentary is a newly recorded interview, in which he discusses the costly process behind this entirely independent endeavour. The director comes across as an artist who’s excited most by the process of bringing his ideas to life, which contrasts with his distinct disinterest in the subsequent commercial side of filmmaking. Both commentaries and the interview are complemented by a bucket load of archival behind the scenes footage, which is also included on Third Window Films’ stacked release.
Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Warped Forest are a joy to behold. Simply wallowing in the bizarreness of each film is bliss, as we’re treated to the unleashed visions of three directors who had the luxury of making exactly what they wanted. This odd double-feature will baffle, humour, and disgust everyone that has the pleasure of watching each film, perhaps all at once. Sit back, switch off the logic button and let these immensely creative films take you for a wild ride. I eagerly await The Second Contact.
Funky Forest + Warped Forest is released in the UK by Third Window.