Third Window Films’ Blu-ray release of Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Warped Forest is a cause for celebration for fans of Japanese cult cinema. For a very long time, Funky Forest was only available on DVD, which did not do justice to the experience of watching the film, considering that its running time of 150 minutes challenges the limits of DVD technology with regards to image and sound quality. Hence, this high-definition remaster was definitely needed.
The Warped Forest, on the other hand, was better known for its rarity. As it’s known as a loose sequel to Funky Forest, it generated some buzz, only to be left to obscurity after a few festival screenings. The film’s obscurity even led its director, Shunichiro Miki, to say that its existence is almost an illusion. For this reason alone, then, the Blu-ray release becomes more exciting, as fans of Funky Forest and Japanese cult cinema alike will finally be satiated with its much-anticipated availability after as years of curiosity.
Funky Forest: The First Contact was the brainchild of film and former advertising directors Katsuhito Ishii (also known for the 2004 comedy The Taste of Tea), Hajime “Aniki” Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki. The film is told in fragmented episodes that intersects several narratives: three brothers who struggles to find a girlfriend, a former teacher and his undefined relationship with a former student, three officemates on a hot springs trip, comedians from outer space looking for new places in the universe to perform to, and a classroom full of oddballs. Each episode plays into the notion of encounters with the unknown that always catches a character in humorous surprise.
Released six years later, The Warped Forest continues the spirit of encounter and discovery, but in a more structured sense. The film opens with three businessmen who are talking about a group of teenagers, who one night disappeared and resurfaced some days later, only to find out that they have experienced the same phenomenon themselves. At the other end of the narrative are the three sisters who seem lost and are trying to look for something. The phenomena of warping ties the two narratives, in a way making it a more conventional science fiction than Funky Forest.
The nature of collaboration in Funky Forest forces the film to adapt an unusual structure for its expositions. Episodes do not play like stories, but as jokes, in a way that it has a setup, a punchline, and at times, misdirection. As a result, the viewing experience of Funky Forest is enriched with the cinematic elements that tend to build the joke set up effectively. In the segments directed by Ishii in particular, the casts are part of the whole set up. To get its jokes, of course, context is important: casts are placed in the frame as part of the setup as much depends on an audience’s familiarity with the faces they see in the film. But Ishii’s segments also work in an entry level way: the guitar brother segment makes the audience look at three people who in no way can be brothers: Katsuichi (Susumu Terajima), Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) and Masao (Andrew Alfieri).
Ishimine’s segment gives us a peep in the afternoon between possible lovers, Notti (Erika Nishikado) and Takefumi (Ryo Kase), and how the two try to resolve their feelings towards each other while Takefumi is haunted by a dream he had – a dance match against aliens – that affects him all afternoon. Linked in this segment are the episodes by Ishii about the alien comedian (also played by Ryo Kase) who is looking for a new place to perform.
Miki’s segments give form to more aliens in the movie. Mostly found in the latter part of the film, Miki’s segments place the sci-fi aspect of Funky Forest in the body horror plane, nodding to Cronenberg’s monsters. Only these episodes are comedic. Miki’s episodes seem to give more alien-experience to the film in the way that the creatures present in the episodes seem to enjoy a normal existence whereby interactions with characters follow a particular logic that only the characters themselves understand.
The film and animatronic techniques deployed by Miki in his Funky Forest episodes are deployed and expanded in The Warped Forest. Miki’s feature film gives more of the technique, a more consistent sci-fi vibe while also expanding on the sexual undertones of his Funky Forest episodes and making them more explicit. Familiarity with Miki’s approach to the earlier film acquaints one with the alien-logic placed in its world building, where fruits are shaped like a woman’s private parts, harvested off woman trees in a world where giants have weird interactions with tiny people, from working as attendants to having affectionate meetings. The Warped Forest owes much of what works to the great performances that make its alien world seem mundane, particularly those of Rinko Kikuchi and the young Fumi Nikaido.
Rewatching Funky Forest years later in this great restoration alongside The Warped Forest affords a different sense of appreciation for the kinds of worlds that the collaboration of Ishii, Miki and Ishimine are trying to create. Both works are as fragmented as they come, but their charm lies exactly in those fragments. They attempt to present an alien world, straight out of sci-fi textbook, extending its alien-ness in its form without taking itself too seriously. Funky Forest and The Warped Forest are a statement that, in both form and content, science fiction can be intricate and complicated while being fun and exciting.
Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Warped Forest are available from Third Window Films.