Setting out to review Funky Forest: The First Contact (AKA Nice No Mori, AKA Naisu No Mori) in any sort of detail is setting yourself an impossible task. How to describe the indescribable? How to summarize and categorize a film that so thoroughly rejects every rule of conventional narrative? It isn’t that this is a film that resists thought, it’s that it is a film that transcends it utterly. It aims for something completely and totally other and succeeds absolutely. This is film as pure experience, pure joy, childlike wonder laced with just a trace of the disturbing other that most of us are just too damn jaded to recognize in the world around us any more.
When director Katsuhito Ishii released his stunning A Taste of Tea a few years back it caught many, myself included, by surprise. Though laced with the surreal sense of the absurd that marked his earlier efforts this was a much more restrained, much more heartfelt Ishii than anyone had ever seen before, more than most had ever even suspected existed. What happened to the madness? To the rampant ADD fueled manic energy? Answer: it all went into Funky Forest.
With the help of a pair of very talented friends – Custom Made 10:30 director ANIKI and the SMAP Short Films director Shunichiro Miki – and the return of some frequent collaborators – Tadanobu Asano prime among them – Ishii here takes the flimsiest of all possible premises – the expansion of a series of canned coffee ads – and spins it into the purest possible distillation of his particular mad genius. It is exhilarating, absurd, disturbing, surreal, touching and hysterically funny. It comes at you in a never ending wave of short sketches, little vignettes that eventually fuse into something that may not make much sense narratively but just feels absolutely right on an instinctive level. There has never been another film like Funky Forest. There never will be another film like Funky Forest. This is one of things that just somehow happens, and only happens once; an alchemical fusion of bizarrely disparate elements, a rare meeting of wide ranging talents where everything just somehow falls into place. It’s the sort of thing that occurs more by instinct than by effort, the sort of thing that actively resists conscious repetition.
So what is it? What’s actually on screen? Funky Forest plays like a sort of supremely bizarre sketch comedy, the strangest variety show you are ever likely to come across. It begins with the Mole Brothers, traditional – and hyperactive – Japanese stand up comics. It then shifts to a science fiction daydream with the little girl from Taste of Tea. Then there’s Asano as the Guitar Brother, a long haired introvert playing sentimental songs on his guitar hoping to attract a woman joined in that task by his high school teaching, traditional dancing elder brother – Susumu Terajima – and the younger third brother inexplicably played by a fat little white kid who has obviously been taught a handful of Japanese phrases phonetically and is never without a supply of Snickers bars. There are the Babbling Hot Spring Vixens, a trio of professional women on a hot spring vacation telling each other increasingly pointless stories as they get progressively drunker. There are dance numbers, bits of animation, and a series of truly bizarre, Cronenberg influenced effects bits. The film is littered with in jokes – the best being Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno cast as a for-hire animator complaining about the lack of artistry in the youth of today while drawing sequences for a project directed, literally, by a dog – and bits seemingly included purely because they struck someone somewhere along the line as being funny. Luckily for us they are, more often than not, correct.
As the film moves forward the different characters begin to intersect, their stories to overlap, until by the end all of these wildly different elements are seen as a unified community. If there’s an overarching point to the film this is likely where it lies: these characters are all people who believe themselves to be disconnected and alone but this is because they focus only on themselves, they lack the perspective to see just how connected they really are. Most are caught up enough in their own sense of loneliness or the pursuit of things they don’t have that they miss the sheer sense of wonder spilling out literally in every inch of every frame of the world around them. As many have already pointed out Funky Forest is a film best experienced as a group. It is more a communal experience than a solitary one. This is also part of the point. Wonder is better shared together than alone.
From somewhat modest beginnings Katsuhito Ishii has become every inch an auteur. A supremely playful auteur, to be sure, a man in love with madness for its own sake, but he is without a doubt one of the most distinctive and vital film makers working today. Is this his masterpiece? Was A Taste of Tea? Though clearly the work of the same mind they are so different that they are difficult to compare but both have the mark of greatness. More gratifyingly they both show that this is a man not content to rest on his past achievements, this is a man still growing into his own immense talent. His work is so unusual that mileage will undoubtedly vary from person to person, from audience to audience, but it says here that Funky Forest is clearly an essential work from a master film maker.
As strong a film as Funky Forest is it is also so supremely unclassifiable that it seems very unlikely to find a home in North America where genre labels and marketing hooks reign supreme, thus making the recent Japanese DVD release the only viable option for the foreseeable future. Luckily it’s a good one. The picture is anamorphic widescreen, presented in the proper ratio, with sound coming in 2.0 and 5.1 options. The optional English subtitles are simply superb. As has been the case with several recent Japanese releases – Tony Takitani leaps instantly to mind - there will be some discussion as to whether the transfer is a little soft or, conversely, whether it is actually so strong that you’re able to see the natural grain of the film stock. I’ll leave it to you to judge for yourself from the below-linked screen captures. The special features are limited but excellent. You get all the TV spots and trailers, a seven minute CGI animated Mole Brothers short (sadly unsubtitled) plus – most importantly – the option to select your chapters by director, thus allowing you to see who did what. The short summary of that is that ANIKI was responsible for the Notti & Takefumi bits, Miki all the Cronenberg moments, and Ishii everything else.