The concept of body horror, inaugurated by the work of David Cronenberg, marked a logical progression in the depiction of screen terror. It eschewed the classical depiction of presenting foreign, alien and supernatural forces as the shape of all evil; and updated the more unsettling 60s and 70s revisionist films which depicted horror as a monstrous mutation of social and familial dismay - by bringing horror much closer, perhaps too close, for comfort. This discomfiting cinematic concept - that the human body is susceptible to mutation and prone to transformation from within - was absorbed into Japanese film culture in the late 80s, and given expression through a cycle of extraordinary films by directors such as Shinya Tsukamoto (the TETSUO films) and Toshiharu Ikeda (THE EVIL DEAD TRAP). However, after watching Kei Fujiwara’s astonishing ORGAN (1996), this fascinating sickness shows no signs of remission, and I can safely say that I have never seen the subject dealt with in such an alarming, unpredictable, disorientating and audacious way. In addition, this can only be a good thing!
Cronenberg applied his warped ideas to various subjects and styles throughout his career, injecting fresh ideas into anarchic B movies (RABID, SHIVERS) and underground minority films (STEREO, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE). He was equally at home when tackling the more palatable genres such as the bitter custody drama (THE BROOD), the tragic love story (THE FLY), and the claustrophobic chamber piece (DEAD RINGERS), as he moved closer to the mainstream. The director’s fascination with body horror found ambivalent means of expression. For example, SHIVERS (1975) presents its slug-like aphrodisiac as a welcome avenue to explore sexual possibilities in an arid, deadening environment; while the subsequent RABID (1976) uses a similar STD theme that leads to a catastrophic social breakdown, as half the city of Montreal fall victim to a homicidal rabies epidemic. THE FLY (1986) combines these polarizing attitudes - Seth Brundle’s transformation slides from sexual improvement to cancerous demise - and then from hideous mutation into an agonizing fusion of flesh and metal.
According to British film critic Pete Tombs, Japanese cinema of the 1980s absorbed Cronenberg’s themes and adapted them. The nation’s best fantastic directors created bizarre and disturbing stories which were socially and culturally relevant. The point of reference concerned masculine anxieties following defeat in war and the subsequent occupation of the country, and this notion served as a springboard to create outrageous and unpredictable fusions of sci-fi and horror. To give an example, THE EVIL DEAD TRAP’s (1988) male antagonist gives birth to his mutant foetus brother, the terrifying Hideki; and in TETSUO (1989), the mutating salaryman sprouts an enormous metallic penis, an overstated countermeasure to the damaged masculinity theme.
TETSUO takes THE FLY’s climatic mutation of flesh and metal, and, crucially, gears the whole film around it. The film charts the gradual transformation of ‘The Salaryman’ and ‘The Metal Fetishist’ into super powered metal freaks, and their subsequent merge together leads to agony and sexual ecstasy. The fetishist, with a metal pipe prised into his head, groans "Ah, this is wonderful," and this thrillingly paves the way for a projected world domination: "Our love can destroy this whole fucking world...We’ll rust the earth into the dust of the universe!"
Kei Fujiwara is no stranger to the body horror subgenre. She served as Tsukamoto’s assistant director for the first TETSUO film, she shared DOP duties with him, played the female lead; and then reprised her acting chores for the brilliant sequel. Going by the evidence of ORGAN, however, Fujiwara as director displays a fundamentally different attitude to physical transformation. Instead of exploring sexual and physical possibilities and their often painful side effects, within the confines of a sci-fi framework, she charts a Sadean descent into sin and evil, filtered through a cops-and-(organ) robbers narrative, in which almost everyone is an irredeemable pervert. Significantly, the director’s choice of body horror is a sickening, painful, blood and pus infested cancer.
In terms of plot construction, Fujiwara acknowledges the work of her illustrious predecessors, while at the same time building on their ideas. The entire narrative structure of ORGAN resembles the latter half of Cronenberg’s SHIVERS, in that it progresses from - and juxtaposes - one violent atrocity and disturbing sexual encounter to another. The narrative becomes a series of shocking, overlapping and extended events. This eschews the mainstream attitude to cinematic narrative, in which the various parts coalesce into a smooth, systematic drive forward. As such, Fujiwara risks alienating ‘regular’, less open audiences who latch onto preconceived and outdated ideas of what film narrative should be.
Tsukamoto’s influence is evident in Fujiwara’s approach to subjectivity. Tony Rayns has stated that the original TETSUO refuses to draw the line between reality and fantasy, and we can add present and future to this dichotomy. We are presented with a delirious array of unclarified images, and to try to figure out what’s real and what’s not is beside the point. The film has its own laws and rules, and, like Spanish director Jess Franco’s syntheses of dreamy, sleazy jazz and languidly perverse tableau, Tsukamoto’s cruel images are flavoured by Chu Ishiwara’s pulse pounding metal soundtrack. Although Fujiwara generally avoids this emphasis on audio-visual montage, she blurs the aformentioned boundaries to a wholly cinematic effect. ORGAN details two plot strands. The first involves detective Numata’s quest to find his missing partner, Tosaka, who was exposed and abducted during an undercover infiltration of an illegal organ stealing and selling business, run by gangsters with the cooperation of corrupt police officers. The second follows Seaki, the doctor who performs the illegal operations and who abducts Tosaka, in order to absorb his blood which will prevent his own revolting liver disease from spreading. Both of the major subplots are ‘coloured’ by the mental states of their protagonists, and Fujiwara uses the trappings of subjective narration to explore the disturbed psyches of two men who find themselves affected, directly or indirectly, by the transformation.
The film begins with Numata’s retrospective voice over narration. As such, we are not seeing the present unfold; rather, the detective is remembering past events and replaying them to himself. The events that have taken place have been a traumatic experience for him - we soon discover that his partner has been abducted and terminally infected with Seaki's horrible illness - and Numata’s extreme mental state affects his telling of the story from start to finish.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the extraordinary opening scene in which Numata and Tosaka infiltrate the slaughterhouse, posing as workers. Their cover is blown almost immediately, and mayhem ensues as they are assaulted and knocked half unconscious. Numata, still groggy, picks up a broken bottle and thrusts it into the leg of a gangster. Seaki then drugs Numata by plunging a needle into his neck, and afterward slashes Tosaka’s legs with shards of broken glass. Numata, severely disorientated, manages to escape. The use of editing in this sequence is cryptic and fragmented; it is very difficult to understand exactly what is happening. Important actions take place at the edges of the dimly lit frame, and the interval between shots omits significant pieces of visual information.
After Tosaka disappears in this ‘slaughterhouse’, Numata combs the area, and then ‘sees’ him in sequence that is pure stream of consciousness; firstly as a pile of revolting human remains, and then in his horribly mutated form. Although this scene takes place at the start of the film, Tosaka doesn’t fully mutate until the end. Past, present and future all blur together, and this serves to create a genuinely disorientating atmosphere. This sequence - as much as the entire film - has unjustly been criticized as confused, but rather it seems to be purposely confusing and contextually relevant. An early experience results in Numata being drugged and beaten and later events leave him emotionally scarred. Instead of straightforward linearity, we witness the world concentrated through Numata’s ‘emotional time’.
Seaki’s tale is much easier to follow; many scenes are depicted with an unflinching objectivity, though there are frequent nosedives into his private fantasies and hallucinations. The film thus occupies a strange grey area in which the inner and outer worlds coalesce. Fujiwara demonstrates an assured use of complex narrative devices to present an alarming and unpredictable cinematic experience; she drops us in the middle of an insane world and demands an active spectator to piece things together. Viewers who deride the film as a confused mess are missing the point, and are not making a proper effort to engage with it.
Aside from her brilliant exploration of subjective storytelling, Fujiwara gives an impressive performance as Yoko, one of the key players in the organ business, and as Seaki’s sister. She demonstrates an assured hand as a director, especially in visual terms; the grimy visual style is perfectly suited to the sordid subject. At times lighting and compositions recall the essential work of Jorg Buttgereit, and Fujiwara has worked wonders, making the most of seemingly limited means. Some of the subjective sequences are absolutely stunning - especially Seaki’s ethereal vision of a beautiful woman emerging from a chrysalis, who, in a darkly - and disgustingly - humorous nod to SHIVERS, groans "There are slugs inside my belly," which force their way out in skin crawling detail.
Don May’s excellent company Synapse have presented ORGAN in a pleasing transfer, displaying the film in its original full screen ratio. Picture quality is a little grainy, as can be expected for a film shot on 16mm. Featured on the disc is a lengthy behind the scenes look at ORGAN 2, which looks excellent. Let’s hope that film gets released soon. After this hugely impressive first effort, I can’t wait!
Directed by Kei Fujiwara
Japanese language with English subtitles
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Synapse DVD Release