Funky Forest: The First Contact (Naisu no Mori THE FIRST CONTACT) opens with the image of a cute-looking UFO. White, with two blue portholes that look like eyes, it is perched on the barren surface of a white moon or planet, with other celestial bodies visible floating behind it in a milky background. There is then a segue to the Mole Brothers (Kenji Mizuhashi, Ryô Kase) being introduced on stage. This variety show double act perform their energetic routines – more miss than hit – while themselves kitted out in white tuxedoes against a white background, before an all-male adult audience likewise dressed in white. There is then a cut to a man watching the show on a device. He too is kitted out in white, in the narrow white padded interior of the UFO – which lets out flapping blue pseudopodia to propel itself into the air where it joins similar flying vessels. These all resemble cellular organisms as much as interplanetary vessels, suggesting that this will be a journey to inner as much as outer space. And only then does the film’s title appear on screen, in blue on white, and in a mix of Japanese (ナイスの森) and English (‘The First Contact’).
These disparate images from the opening sequence of Funky Forest present themselves as something of a challenge to the viewer. For although unified by the dominance of white, they are otherwise, in all their individual and collective surrealism, incoherent and demanding of synthesis. Sure enough, like the Mole Brothers’ strange stage show, this film from writers/directors Shunichiro Miki, Katsuhito Ishii and Hajime Ishimine will offer a range of madcap sketches whose jokes never quite land. It is an entertainment, but also, as a series of inconsequential episodes stretched over two and a half hours, it keeps raising the question of its own entertainment value, or indeed purpose. And as a film sometimes concerned with art and artists (including a DJ who creates a ‘lame mix’, an anime team being directed by a literal dog, a trio of otherworldly performers whose story – not unlike the film itself – will take “three hours” to tell, and an interstellar band of musicians), it is also deeply reflexive, offering a metacommentary on its own elusive and often entirely disposable forms.
While much of what Funky Forest does might seem meandering and arbitrary, there is a range of recurring characters and scenarios to give it the semblance of continuity. ‘Guitar Brother’ Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) and his two equally Unpopular With Women Brothers (Susumu Terajima, Andrew Alfieri) are on a sort of slacker search for partners, while the three ‘Bubbling Hot Spring Vixens’ exchange stories without obvious, or indeed any, narrative punchlines, and English teacher/amateur DJ Takefumi (Ryô Kase) and his student Notti (Erika Nishikado) tell one another their dreams – and the high school where both Masaru and Takefumi work appears to have incorporated a number of peculiar and inappropriately sexualised creatures into its extracurricular activities.
Those creatures, part yonic part phallic things that ooze milky sperm and insert their appendages into human orifices to produce obscure effects, are like something out of Cronenberg‘s most transgressive imagination – and the scenes which feature them, though relatively few in number, are the most memorable from Funky Forest. Perhaps their peculiar symbiotic relationship with humans represents ‘the first contact’ of the film’s subtitle. Perhaps indeed they are the alien ‘Piko-rikos’ of which little schoolgirl Hataru daydreams, and which also find their ways into the stories of the Bubbling Hot Spring Vixens and the dreams of Notti and Takefumi (although Masaru will insist to Takefumi, “There’s no such thing as Piko-riko”). Or perhaps their penetrative interactions with school children figure a more general paedophilic theme in the film. After all, Takefumi’s sexual yearning for his own student Notti becomes a recurring motif here – and when one of the (very obviously anatomically male) creatures latches itself vampirically to a young school girl’s arm, the health teacher will say to it (in Takefumi’s presence): “Do you like little girls?… You haven’t grown up, have you? You middle-aged Peter Pan wannabe.” It is a line that resonates with another sequence of episodes where a middle-aged male is shown sitting alongside a preadolescent girl in a school classroom. Indeed all of the grown-up males here seem arrested and childlike.
Mostly, though, those creatures, in all their grotesque hybridity, embody the monstrous form of the film itself, combining within its ungainly duration not just weird go-nowhere comedy, but also prolonged singing-and-dancing sequences and even episodes of animation. For Funky Forest offers itself as a wildly unstable, experimental artefact which will leave the viewer, in this first encounter, confounded and frustrated. Much as the film begins with a spaceship, it also – sort of – ends with one. “A UFO!”, Notti will shout, sending Takefumi out looking and asking, “Where?”. Notti, it will turn out, has tricked her would-be boyfriend with a pun. “USO, USO, USO,” she will repeat – the Japanese for a ‘lie’. Here Funky Forest is itself the UFO, an unidentified object seemingly beamed in from another planet – even as it deconstructs itself and reduces all its crazy excursions to the layered fictions of dreams, stories and jokes.
Six years later Shunichiro Miki would return solo to helm The Warped Forest (Asatte no mori, 2011), a loose sequel featuring plenty of callbacks to the original. Again an ensemble affair, this time with a more concentrated focus on close encounters with the freaky creatures whose occasional appearances were the most mesmerising part of the first film, this is still surreal, but also shorter, tighter and more cogent, using its alien escapades ultimately to tell a very human story of the quest for happiness. It is in every way the better film, but without that original first contact, it could not have existed.
strap: Shunichiro Miki, Katsuhito Ishii and Hajime Ishimine’s uncategorisable sketch-/freak-show is a UFO waiting to land