[Our thanks to Charles Webb for the following review.]
The nearly silent opening of director Yukio Ninagawa’s Snakes and Earrings is unfair to the viewer of this film. The sequence is actually quite beautiful, with a camera panning around a busy Tokyo intersection at night. The camera lingers over the lights and flashing ads before finally settling on an anomaly on a Japanese street: a young black man beckoning the viewer to follow him into the night. It’s an artful sequence that is as measured as it is quiet and introspective. I mentioned above that this sequence is unfair to the viewer: indeed it is, because it promises something far more thoughtful than the actors and story seem capable of delivering.
The story centers on the attractive Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka), aimless and in the throes of young adulthood. She is only marginally employed as a companion to wealthy businessmen at expensive parties, and it would seem that she’s seeking some sort of identity for herself. She meets Ama (Kengo Kora), a tattooed, mohawked, extensively-pierced punk who sweeps her off her feet by offering to show her his forked tongue. It’s not the most clever or evolved opening salvo but neither of these people is particularly complex.
Lui moves in with Ama and Ama introduces her to his tattooist/piercing enthusiast friend Shibari (Arata). He strikes a visually fascinating figure with his shaved and tattooed head, paper-white skin, bleached eyebrows, and pierced face and it’s obvious to everyone except Ama that Lui is into him. As such things tend to go Lui is soon using her newfound fascination with being tattooed as an excuse to rendezvous with Shibari, a self-described sadist with delusions of godhood.
On paper, there is something very interesting in the story of a young woman torn between two sides of the same outsider. On one side is Ama who is a desperately sincere but immature young man who would kill for her. On the other side is Shibari who, between bouts of throttling Lui during sex, passionately (even wistfully) tells her how much he’d like to take her life.
Sadly, there’s such a noticeable vacancy to the whole affair, made worse by Lui’s overwrought voiceover and by the two murders (one accidental and one intentional) that create course corrections for Lui during the course of the story. At first glance, Lui also seems like someone we want to know more about – who is she when she’s not around Ama and Shibari? Whether through the designs of the script or through the vagaries of Ms. Yoshitaka’s performance, Lui is played as both a driven masochist while she’s with Shibari and a scolding and exasperated girlfriend when she’s with Ama. This duality initially seems like a purposeful stab at complexity until one sees through the course of the film that it’s just inconsistency in the lead’s performance.
The part she plays well is that of histrionic confessor – they all do. Each of the characters in this movie loves to talk about their emotions in the most pat, unironic and faux-deep manner possible. Even Shibari – seemingly the most mature of the threesome – is at his core the emotional scribbling and dark poetry on the inside of a high school student’s notebook. The trio has barely a single dimension between them – it’s appropriate that through most of the movie the characters aren’t overly curious about one another’s full names or pasts. Each is very much in the moment and neither one seems to have a life before the first scene or after the last.
I understand that the movie is based on a novel by Hitomi Kanehara who was in her 20’s when she wrote it. This is evident from the story on screen which has all the passion of youth without anything approaching the introspection of experience.
I’ve mentioned sex – the movie is being touted as something kinky and transgressive with its focus on body modification and light bondage sex. Sadly this is the worst kind of “dirty” film that unable to titillate with its almost quaint ideas of what constitutes kink and the worst kind of art film that is unable to stimulate given its vacuous characters and inane situations.
Review by Charles Webb