Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006)
Directed by Takahsi Miike
Written by Masa Nakamura (adapted from the novel)
Starring Ryûhei Matsuda, Masanobu Andô and Shunsuke Kubozuka
Cinematography by Masahito Kaneko
In Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, director Takashi Miike unapologetically subsumes the murder mystery he takes as source material under his own lexicon of visual tricks and symbols. The film is so full of stylistic flourishes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all; just when we think we’ve accustomed ourselves to the rules of how images can be manipulated and reassembled, Miike adds some new ingredient. Like the events leading to Shiro Kazuki’s murder, the images themselves are constantly reevaluated. Scenes are repeated from different angles, lines of dialogue are regurgitated with a new diction or inflection. Against all odds, things actually come into perfect focus by the end. It’s up to viewers to decide whether there’s any logic in what they see.
The story begins at the end, with Jun strangling his fellow inmate Shiro in a cell full of murder convicts, muttering to himself and to the guards: “I killed him”. Yet in spite of this confession, things aren’t what they seem. In order to make sense of the events that preceded the murder, a couple of detectives arrive, leading to a series of flashbacks that may or may not indicate “objective” reality. The victim Shiro and the ostensible perpetrator Jun were imprisoned on the same day for murder, and they formed a sorrowful symbiosis in which each man needed the other in some unspeakable way. There are precious few scenes in which they’re alone together, so that when they do interact, Miike forces us to lean in closer, to listen past the wordless stares, searching for hints of a murderous motive. What we find instead is a strange kind of love in which the only “Big Bang” comes from the gratuitous bouts of violence that Shiro unleashes upon his fellow prisoners and guards – everyone but Jun.
It’s clear what Jun gets out of the relationship, at least on a practical level: physical protection. But Shiro also seems to represent an ideal of manhood that Jun needs to admire. In an abstract flashback that seems to exist outside the confines of actual time, we see Shiro’s younger self project his image of adult masculinity onto a dancer who writhes and soars in a bizarre sequence of rhythmic MTV-style jump cuts. That man also happens to wear the same body tattoos as Shiro, indicating a similar role in Jun’s worldview. And yet it is Shiro who actually transforms into a child during some of his interactions with Jun.
What Shiro gains, then, is someone to protect; someone to make him a man. Despite Jun’s apparent passivity, he’s the one who holds the love together as it explodes apart. His muted eyes and stoic features have an unexpected weight against the slight contours of his flesh. Although Miike refuses to allow his characters to propel the narrative, we can call Jun our protagonist because he so frequently directs the gaze of the camera, a gaze that is frequently directed at Shiro’s feet, limbs, or torso.
The relationship exists solely in terms of such abstracted and objectified looks, and yet it somehow comes alive on screen with a real emotional depth. We see how the accidental grazing of their hands induces panic, and how Shiro attacks Jun for embracing him when they’re alone. Whatever love might exist is thrown into relief only by the fear that surrounds it. Homosexuality isn’t mentioned until about an hour into the film, in the form of a passing taunt; if the two men did in fact share a romantic relationship, the strongest evidence in favor of such an interpretation is the fact that Jun claims to have murdered Shiro.
As the two detectives come to realize, however, Jun is not the perpetrator. The details of what actually transpired are relayed to us with surprising transparency, in the form a series of titles displayed over black. Two other male prisoners were having a sexual relationship, and a man named Makoto suspected that his lover was having an affair with Shiro. Makuto decided to strangle Shiro with a twine rope only because he knew that Shiro was stronger and thus believed that he himself would end up dead. Makoto was surprised to find that when he tried to stop strangling Shiro, Shiro grabbed his hands and tightened the rope against Makoto’s will. “The motive of the perpetrator was suicide,” and both men wanted to be killed by the other. Makoto was stung with jealousy, and Shiro ended his life because he saw a triple-rainbow. Jun strangled Shiro’s corpse and claimed to be the perpetrator because he was jealous that Shiro would allow himself to be killed by another man. The result of Miike’s style is to create a 90-minute universe in which incongruity inhabits every bit of light and air, so that this final revelation actually makes a certain kind of sense.
That’s quite a task, and so it’s no wonder that one of the prisoners claims he has “no idea what the world looks like.” Like the drone of a David Lynch film, the world of Miike’s prison has its own unique sound, alive with the incessant clanging of distorted time. The cell is octagonally shaped, with shards of mirror embedded in wooden floorboards. Light from an invisible sun shines through the window, yet we can see the empty film studio beyond the bars. Several scenes take place in a black chroma-keyed space akin to Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. An entire hallway of prison cells is drawn with white chalk, so that the constrained conduct of the prisoners feels absurd given the lack of physical boundaries. The grungy neon lighting schemes are either completely non-diegetic or highly exaggerated based on their alleged sources. Frequently, characters fade from a scene like ghosts, and lines of dialogue are dubbed over motionless mouths. Extreme rack focuses reveal figures that were previously invisible, and the frame is divided and obscured by geometric shadows.
Everything is so heavily stylized that ordinary details – a white sink, a metal radiator, a pair of eyeglasses – all come to feel impossibly strange. Flashbacks to Jun and Shiro’s pasts are filled with naturalistic lighting and crowds of anonymous faces, signs of an outside world from which we’ve been irrevocably detached. The film’s final image is of a steady crowd exiting a subway station, a reminder that the story we’ve just seen exists in a kind of void, and so an unshakable nihilism seeps into the closing credits. We’ve been led to accept an unlikely solution to a mystery as contrived as the carefully smeared dirt on each prisoner’s face.