EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again, Robert Nishimura’s Three Reasons shines a spotlight on a film that merits the Criterion treatment.
By Robert Nishimura
Press Play Contributor
The Noisy Requiem revolves around Makoto Iwashita, a homeless serial killer who murders young women so that he can harvest their reproductive organs. He collects these visceral mementos so he can stuff them in the belly of his lover, the model woman of his desire, a mannequin. Makoto lives on the roof of an abandoned tenement building with his wooden mistress, making love to her through a makeshift vagina. The organs he acquires are to ensure that she can bear his child, which she eventually does until tragedy falls upon their happy home. The film follows Makoto through his daily routine: feeding some pigeons, decapitating them, finding some other chicks to murder and maim, and landing a job as a sewer scooper for a pair of incestuous midget siblings. We are also introduced to an older vagabond who carries with him a severed tree trunk that looks remarkably like a woman’s torso. The rest of the film’s inhabitants are the actual people who live in Shinsekai, floating in and out of the periphery like ghosts in a forgotten district of hell.
All of this happens within the first ten minutes of the film. Not a single word of dialogue has been spoken, aside from the few monosyllabic grunts here and there. Makoto practically melts into the background, a killer in plain sight, completely ignored by everyone around him. We then cut to a scene at the park, where two young schoolgirls watch some busking war veterans beg for change. One of the girls tells her friend of the dream she had the night before. In it she watches a pure white dove compete for breadcrumbs. As the bird struggles for each scrap of food, it begins to transform into a black crow, as the breadcrumbs become human remains. As the girls give the buskers some money, she explains that it was only natural for the dove to become a crow, for out of desperation to find happiness we all lose our innocence. These are some pretty profound words coming from the mouths of a couple of kids just shooting the shit in the park. But the film’s director, Yoshihiko Matsui, has clearly defined where Makoto is coming from and where he will inevitably go. All the film’s crows are that way out of necessity — still desperately searching for attention and love in a society that has abandoned them.
The Noisy Requiem is very much a product of Japanese cinema in the 1980s. The era marked the beginning of the end of an era that encouraged and supported innovative filmmaking, and the beginning of the next generation of underground filmmaking — one born out of necessity and circumstance.
The great radical masters of the previous decades — Nagisa Ôshima, Shôhei Imamura, Shûji Terayama, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Kazuo Kuroki — had been assimilated and spat out by the mainstream studios, some of them producing their swan songs before fading away, unnoticed and unappreciated. The Art Theater Guild of Japan, which had fostered independent filmmakers, producing many groundbreaking films throughout the sixties and seventies, was getting out of production altogether. Only a handful of films came out of the ATG before it closed up shop in the mid-80s. But by this point the country’s major studios were already flailing in a bone-dry creative pool. The majors had co-opted the themes and visual styles from underground cinema, sanitized it for mainstream audience consumption and left the masters behind; at the same time, the studios were moving towards a vertically integrated system that would force independent producers like ATG out of business.
Out of the collapse of the ATG came a new movement that favored a more DIY approach to filmmaking. Driven by Japan’s growing underground punk music scene, young filmmakers took the cheapest route available: 8mm (Japan continued using single gauge 8mm film long after Super 8 was introduced in the West). Yoshihiko Matsui emerged from this tradition along with Sogo Ishii, both film students at Nihon University. Sogo Ishii would quickly gain a name for himself with the growing v-cinema boom and cyberpunk movement that took off at the start of the decade. Ishii’s Panic High School and Crazy Thunder Road were all completed while the director was still in film school and are all considered required viewing by hardcore fans of the movement. Matsui Yoshihiko worked closely with Ishii during this time and acted as Assistant Director for most of Ishii’s early films. In turn Ishii shot Matsui’s debut feature Rusty Empty Can and his sophomore effort, the elegantly titled, Pig Chicken Suicide.
Matsui’s next film was The Noisy Requiem. It wasn’t completed until several years after Pig Chicken Suicide, and it took a while for a distributor to pick it up. It was not merely Matsui’s finest film, but his most distinctive, an evolutionary step beyond his previous films, which owed much to the style of his partner-in-crime Ishii Sogo. Since the cyberpunk movement was gaining popularity, The Noisy Requiem became an immediate underground success, but it evaded critical attention at home and abroad. The reviews that it did get were polarized, and focused mainly on its disturbing plot points and characterizations. Its stark black-and-white, hand-held 16mm photography add to its already unnervingly naturalistic feel; there is a strong sense of immediacy to the film. Yet there is still a feeling of timelessness. At points it feels like a documentary that slips into moments of madness and sublime expressionism. Perhaps the film was ignored because of its setting in a homeless community of Kamagasaki, Shinsekai in Osaka. To this day, the Japanese government has still maintained the absurd claim that there are no homeless people in Japan, an idea that immediately falls apart if you’ve even been to any city in the country; a collective national urge to ignore the guy who scored a refrigerator box for the night could explain why a film like The Noisy Requiem went largely unnoticed.
As Johannes Schönherr (at Midnight Eye) already pointed out, the first ten minutes of The Noisy Requiem firmly establish Matsui’s worldview and, with Shakespearean bravado, foreshadow its unavoidable outcome. From the moment our schoolgirls leave the frame the film takes a derisive turn in many stylistic directions. Makoto soon enters the scene to accost the two buskers. Matsui suddenly walks away from the action before the argument culminates into violence. Matsui’s camera spastically revolves around the park, coming full circle to the action as Makoto starts beating the crap out of the handicapped veterans. Makoto represents the blackest of crows in our already pitch-black aviary. But as Matsui will soon reveal, the depths of his obscene depravity are matched only by his obsessive devotion.
As the film continues we are introduced to our two white doves: a beautiful young couple dressed in white. We never learn their names or how they ended up in Shinsekai, but we immediately recognize that they are innocent, and very much in love. Matsui overexposes the scene so that the characters are surrounded by pure white light, erasing everything else around them. They are never referenced within the film and never speak throughout their transformation, their transformation to hungry black crows, pecking at the rest of the dead. At first it seems as though this couple is meant to contrast Makoto’s black crow, but as the film progresses we witness our white dove’s fall from grace, driven by the boy’s lust for the girl. As hard as they try to maintain their innocence, their environment ultimately corrupts them. By showing the couple unable to resist temptation, Matsui only strengthens Makoto’s purity in his devotion to his mannequin. His love for her is real enough, and there is no distraction from his loyalty to her.
There is no question that Makoto’s love for his mannequin is pure. We see how they first met, the moments they share together, cleaning her, tending to her, protecting her, and killing for her. This is all shown in such a way that we cannot help but empathize with Makoto. In a style usually reserved for romantic melodramas, Makoto dances with her as the camera revolves around them, with pools of filth glimmering around them in the moonlight. Later in this scene Makoto confesses his hatred for the world around him. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Makoto is waiting for the cleansing rain to wash away the dirty streets and disgusting people he sees outside of Shinsekai. Matsui’s seems to share Makoto’s view of morality in Shinsekai and of the outside world.
Matsui defends Makoto as an honorable character, but like everyone in the film, his obsession will only lead to ruin. There is no other outcome for these poor souls, and each will meet their own grisly death. Everyone is desperately clinging to whatever they can in a place that has forsaken them, and Makoto’s rooftop home offers a place for them to indulge in their passion. But saying that the characters lack any moral compass is problematic once Matsui shows how people act in “the outside world.” Matsui portrays normal society as something equally disgusting, and in some scenes he simply hides his camera and records the reactions of “normal society” to his characters. In another scene a busload of senior citizens bust out laughing when a midget woman falls over (twice). Although this scene was clearly staged, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of a supposed moral society. Matsui doesn’t condone Makoto’s actions, but it is clear that Matsui considers him noble in his dedication to his mannequin.
Most recent reviews of the film are quick to call Matsui’s style nihilist and disturbing, and certainly after reading the above synopsis you would probably agree. Matsui’s guerilla filmmaking approach reinforces that kind of reading, especially since much of the film was clearly shot without permits or permission. Matsui actually set the roof of a building on fire near the film’s climax, and then snuck away to a neighboring building to film the fireman and cops sniff around the remains of Makoto’s makeshift home. Matsui’s complete disregard for linear storytelling offers a glimpse into the reality of Kamagasaki, often leaving characters behind while the camera walks up and down the street showing the real inhabitants going about their lives. Flawlessly edited, the cinematography flows effortlessly from vérité to dream-like fantasy, kinetic and visually abstract. But also slow paced, lingering on beautifully composed moments of horror and misery, as well as love and desire. Some viewers might avoid the film because of the described violence, or others may have high expectations to see some crazy J-style weirdness. The Noisy Requiem stands apart from most genre classifications, and certainly should not be lumped together with other v-cinema cyberpunk films of that period. The violence is disturbing, but it is never graphic or fetishized. It is a deeply personal film, made with compassion for it’s subject matter and an understanding of what innovative cinema can be. Like many of his mentors from the ATG, Matsui was able to evoke the spirit of his generation while maintaining his own unique vision. Having a film like The Noisy Requiem in the Criterion Collection would give Matsui the recognition he deserves, and would allow the Western world to see one of the most important independent films to come out of Japan since the fall of the Art Theatre Guild.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his “Three Reasons” series, click here.