Swallowtail Butterfly (1996, Iwai Shunji)

I queued Swallowtail Butterfly on the strengths of Love Letter, Iwai’s first film. I don’t know anything about current events in Japan. The last topical news I knew from Japan was when they found that guy on the island who didn’t the war was over. I’m American… we don’t care about other countries. We’re politically imperialists, but pragmatically, we’re still isolationists. America. We don’t care.

Swallowtail Butterfly was made in 1996 and opens with a prologue about the high value of the Yen and a bunch of immigrants coming to Japan to profit off that high value. The Japanese don’t like these immigrants and I guessed it was situation similar to when people come over from Mexico. Whatever, right? There was nothing to suggest is was untrue–I hadn’t heard about it. Big deal. The last time Japan was in American news, it took a President vomiting on a Prime Minister. Like I said, we don’t care. Even if we care… eh, we really don’t care. Pragmatic isolationists.

I read about Swallowtail Butterfly–the description–when I rented the DVD from Nicheflix. Girl’s mother dies. Girl gets “adopted” by brassy hooker. Works for oddballs. Hey, there you go… My apprehension was mostly the running time–150 minutes. Love Letter was all right, but it was boring. On the border of good and bad boring, but boring. Swallowtail Butterfly is excruciatingly boring. The scenes are real short–maybe three or four minutes a piece–but Iwai’s a good director. His composition is nice and he understands how to use sound and music. He’s very American in a way. He’s like an American director who does small movies but they don’t look cheap. He was a music video director and the transition different from the American model. He doesn’t choppy shots–he uses handheld so there wouldn’t be point–but has the short scenes… kind of like the narrative music video, actually.

The film drags on and on for about forty minutes before anything interesting happens–the girl and hooker get together and have their relationship defined in the first twelve, thanks to those short scenes, so that question is already answered. Well, then at the forty minute mark, a john finds the girl and goes after the girl and gets punched out the window by their neighbor and gets run over by a street cleaner. But it works. The film never leaves its form. It manages to hold the form while doing something incredibly different.

Then there’s a mobster scene and the film loses it. Totally breaks that form it just held. But I stayed with it. Any hopes of it being rewarding where dashed but Iwai’s got good composition, likes nice colors, and so, visually, the film has pleasing effect. I got two hours extra sleep today and I figured I had the energy.

Then there was future stuff, so I paused the movie and Googled. Yeah… it’s a future movie.

From what I saw, it’s Strange Days, minus the virtual reality stuff.

A future movie is a future movie. A social, humanist piece is a social, humanist piece. The first forty-five minutes plays like a bad version of The Lower Depths. Maybe everyone else knew–had I known Japanese current events, I might know, but the film’s ten years old so… you know, maybe not–but in the context the film it blows up completely. It becomes absurd. It invalidated the work the film did; regardless of whether or not the film intended to do that work, it did and someone should have seen that work being done… It’s like making a great movie about someone going insane and then making it all about cryogenics.

I must have intuited it somehow, since I’ve been avoiding this film since November 2004.

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