A/B side VIBES. Greatest Hits from ‘80s & ‘90s
Japan, 1996, 148’, Japanese
Directed by: Iwai Shunji
Screenplay: Iwai Shunji
Photography (color): Shinoda Noboru
Editing: Iwai Shunji
Art Direction: Taneda Yohei
Music: Kobayashi Takeshi
Producers: Kawai Shinya, Wadakura Kazutoshi, Kubota Osamu, Maeda Hiroko
Cast: Mikami Hiroshi, Ito Ayumi, Chara, Eguchi Yosuke, Andy Hui, Watabe Atsuro
Date of First Release in Territory: September 14th, 1996
Released in 1996, half a decade after the Japanese economic bubble of the booming 1980s had spectacularly burst, Iwai Shunji’s Swallowtail Butterfly is set in an alternative Japan where the yen is the strongest currency in the world and migrants are flocking from all over to grab yen notes anyway possible. They call their new home Yentown and are themselves derisively called Yentowns by the Japanese – a bit of confusion that the opening narration helpfully straightens out.
Based on Iwai’s original script, the film is a manga-esque fantasy, an offbeat pop musical and an acerbic commentary on the state of Japan in the mid-1990s, when the country was still a magnet for migrants from Asia and elsewhere. Unable to afford the sort of wealthy Tokyo neighborhoods favored by Western expats, many congregated in and around sub-centers like Shinjuku and Ikebukuro that had cheaper accommodations – and shadier reputations. Some became sex workers or drug dealers.
In the film, the Yentowns, who are mostly Chinese, live in a shantytown called Blue Sky on a suburban wasteland, recycling junk, running scams, or selling their bodies. The protagonist is a teenaged girl who, following the murder of her prostitute mother, is taken in by a good-hearted hooker from Shanghai who goes by the name Glico, a brand of Japanese candy. She dubs the girl Ageha, which means “swallowtail butterfly.” Despite their low social status, Glico and the other Blue Sky denizens have a strong camaraderie that finds expression in nighttime revelries.
But when a Japanese gangster falls to his death – he was trying to rape Ageha when a burly black man named Arrow sent him flying out a window – he is discovered to have a cassette tape on his person with magnetic data for counterfeiting yen notes. A Chinese gang boss, Rio Ranki (Eguchi Yosuke), wants the tape, but in the meantime, led by the cooly intelligent Ran (Watabe Atsuro), the Yentowns begin making fake yen. The money goes to the launch of a lub where Glico, a talented singer, stars nightly. Fei Hong (Mikami Hiroshi), a Chinese hustler with a gift of gab, serves as club manager. But this success story, with Glico becoming a hit-making recording artist, starts to unravel after a tabloid reporter (Momoi Kaori) noses out Glico’s sex worker past.
Despite the film’s lengthy running time, the handheld camerawork of cinematographer Shinoda Noboru generates a fizzy, in-the-moment energy that carries the story along. Also, in one of the more memorable sequences, Ageha and a Chinese street boy tour a dark, winding alley populated by drug-addicted Yentowns, followed closely by a jittery camera that creates an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of Blade Runner.
Chara, who already had a thriving career as a pop singer when she was cast as Glico, brings a sweet, sultry charisma to both her role and her vocals. Though a hit album was spun from her on-screen appearances with an all-foreigner ensemble called the Yentown Band, her music is an integral part of the story, not something shoehorned into it.
Finally, in contrast to the Japanese films of the era that framed Asian migrants as victims of Japan’s xenophobic society, Swallowtail Butterfly celebrates them as fighters more vital than the Japanese they encounter, who range from the clueless to the cold-hearted. Using English as their common language, mixed with Chinese and Japanese, the Yentowns are also more internationally minded than their mostly monolingual hosts (though nearly all are played by Japanese actors).
A quarter of a century after its release, the film that Quentin Tarantino once said “was to Japan what Pulp Fiction was to America” is still relevant in a country that still marginalizes and exploits its migrants. But getting rich from a cassette tape is no longer an option.
Born in 1963 in Sendai, Iwai Shunji won a Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Award for his 1993 TV drama Fireworks. His breakthrough as a feature director, however, was his 1995 Love Letter, a romantic drama about a woman who writes a letter to a dead love – and gets a letter in reply. Iwai followed up with the 1996 Swallowtail Butterfly, that generated a popular soundtrack album. Yet another influential hit was All About Lily Chou-Chou, a 2001 drama. Iwai’s most recent film is the 2020 pandemic-era project The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8.
1995 – Love Letter
1996 – Swallowtail Butterfly
1998 – April Story
2001 – All About Lily Chou-Chou
2004 – Hana & Alice
2016 – A Bride for Rip Van Winkle
2020 – The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8