Watching Wind-Up Type (Nejishiki), Ishii Teruo’s eighty-first film and his second based con the work of the manga artist Tsuge Yoshiharu, I found it passing strange that these two veteran representatives of the ero-guro (i.e. “erotic and grotesque”) side of Japanese popular art should have been so long getting together.
One reason was box-office realities. Though Ishii first read and admired Nejishiki when it appeared in Garo magazine in 1967, its offbeat tale of a struggling cartoonist’s journey between dream and reality, Eros and Thanatos, would have been a hard sell to Ishii’s studio bosses. In the late seventies, Ishii’s career stalled, and he returned to directing TV dramas. Ironically, the project that returned him to the big screen, after a gap of fourteen years, was Master of the Gensekan Inn, a four-segment omnibus based on Tsuge’s manga.
Wind-Up Type (Nejishiki) begins with an opening sequence of writhing semi-naked flesh inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. Yet the film is less a tour through a garden of earthly delights than a trip through a borderland where the spiritual wounds of waking life fester in the night mind. It is a world of loners and losers, where sex becomes a frantically absurd assault across the gulf that separates the sexes, where a failed suicide attempt is regarded less than a melodramatic cry for help than a blackly comic foul-up. The underlying tone of the film, however, is gently tolerant, not mocking: sympathetic, not supercilious. Rather than simply impress with the twisted brilliance of his images, Ishii tries to locate the wellsprings of our common humanity in places we visit in the darkest hours and the depths of the unconscious.
The hero is a cartoonist named Tsube (Asano Tadanobu) who finds himself evicted and broke. He crashes with a friend, but this solution to the housing problem proves unsatisfactory. Then his girlfriend’s one-night fling sends Tsube into a tailspin - attempted suicide, hospitalization and a rest stay in the countryside. There he begins to recover his equilibrim, while dreaming some very strange dreams and rediscovering his interest in the opposite sex.
The most riveting of Tsube’s erotic partners is Aoba Mika, who plays her scene nude, with a sang froid that Sharon Stone might admire. Taking Tsube on a teasing guided tour of her nether regions (“Here is Shiba Park and here’s Tokyo Tower”), she generates more heat than all the film’s futon gymnastics combined. In the work of the seventy-three-year-old Ishii, the erotic principle is still alive and well, with no help needed from little blue pills.