Under the Radar
Shunji Iwai is a director that hasn’t received much recognition here in the States. It seems that his movies “Love Letter” and “Hana & Alice” have received more international attention even though most fans of his will tell you that Picnic, Swallowtail Butterfly, and All about Lily Chou Chou are by far his best. I believe this is due to that fact that those movies have much heavier and darker scenes contained in them, stranger subject matter, and two of three of those film’s star disturbingly young leads (Picnic is the exception). So it’s not hard to see these movies obtaining a cult like fan base leaving general audiences in the dark. For me personally, Picnic is easily my favorite film from this director.
In Japan, Shunji Iwai has been referred to as the Japanese Wong Kar-Wai. I think they’re completely different but we can entertain this thought for an introduction to him anyway. The comparison is definitely due to the technical and emotional precision of Iwai’s very consistent cinematography. Some of his shots in everyone of his movies seem like they were possibly attempted over and over like how Stanley Kubrick often did 30-70 takes. Shunji Iwai is very different from Wong Kar-Wai in that he also makes quite an assortment of coming of age movies featuring extremely young actors. He also has much more warmth and heart reaching methods in that his movies aim to capture a particular emotion you can relate with even if it’s a really bizarre one. Whereas Wong is known for making his stars coming off as ultra cool, sophisticated, almost inhuman in grandeur, and is obviously heavily influenced by Jean Luc Godard and the French New Wave. The two directors contrast styles of sentimentality vs. charisma.
The Storyline The film’s starting point is very similar to I’m a Cyborg but that’s okay (2006), so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if Park Chan-wook (famous for Oldboy 2003) was directly influenced by it. However, I’m a Cyborg but that’s Okay’s second half unfortunately breaks off into typical romantic comedy territory, whereas Picnic stays true to it’s spirit throughout. It’s about three mental institution patients.
Coco (Japanese pop singer Chara), is a little young woman dressed literally with crow feathers. She’s easily the craziest, most carefree, and inelegant of the three. She is often very obnoxious, and extremely whimsical. Her outfit suits her well since she occasionally makes dying bird screams and just her overall voice sounds like she is bored while being in labor. While most people described this way wouldn’t be seen as very becoming, there is something charming and cute about all of these traits on her. Tsumuji (Tadanobu Asano from Ichi the Killer) and Satoru (Koichi Hashizume) are found in the asylum already before Coco gets there. Tsumuji has frequent haunting visions of a puppet-like stout man with glasses who for some reason seems to have a bladder problem since he is always urinating. Both him and the Crow lady ended up in the institution for the same reason as the film will later reveal to you. Satoru is basically a 21 or so playful adolescent boy. He’s basically just a roommate of Tsumuji’s and his character isn’t explored too deeply.
The three eventually decide upon traveling, but are obviously not allowed outside of the asylum. So they start to explore the world by walking on the institute’s walls. Surprisingly there are endless walls connected to the property borders of the mental institution. So they reason that they technically haven’t left the institution by staying on top of the borders. Coco and Tsumuji walk near a church and meet a priest who gives them a bible. When reading the publication date of the book they sillily believe that the end of world is just around the corner. So they decide to go on a picnic to witness the apocalypse and discard all worries about leaving since the asylum with the rest of the world will soon be destroyed. However, they still remain walking on top of walls for the bulk of the film. The progression of these events are peppered by haunting foreshadowing into both Coco and Tsumuji’s past.
What separates Picnic from most films The most obvious and distinct trademark you’ll pick up on about Picnic is just how well the endearingly carefree piano (composed by Remedios) and the liberating cinematography compliment each other. It’s nothing short of cinematic magic. You’ll find yourself in a very warm place for the rest of the film after the escapees leave the asylum even if the events portrayed are horrific and very sad. Also, just how often do you get to see what the world looks like from on top of a ten foot wall? You’ll get this unique perspective for the remaining two thirds of the movie.
Picnic also manages to do something that I hear people talk about often but it rarely actually is achieved within movies. The film’s dialog and scenarios often interweave seemingly contradictory emotions for the viewer to intake simultaneously. One of the first signs you’ll see of this is when Coco grabs a crow that was perched on her windowsill, and although it doesn’t show the act itself, she clearly kills it. She is then seen turning it into a sort of fur coat in deliberation of wearing it like a rock star, and squirting black paint all over herself. The only thing she isn’t doing is rolling around all over the place in the feathers. The scene is just as disturbing as it is liberating and celebratory. She couldn’t be more pleased with herself, and if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself smiling just the same. That isn’t the only type of contradictory emotional response you’ll receive. With the rest of the movie you’re treated to several of these moments.
The dialog is often outrageous and is intentionally unbelievable. I immediately thought of how dry, silly, stupid, and lighthearted Wes Anderson’s sense of humor is, and to think this movie was shot in 1994 only to be released two years later. For every heavy handed, depressing, torturing, and disturbing occurrence you’ll witness, there is also something comical, silly, obnoxious, lighthearted or endearing added to it. Another movie that does this very often is the much later Synecdoche, New York from 2008, where you found yourself conflicted with whether to cry or laugh. I remember some criticism that Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut received was that none of these dialog lines would ever be delivered from a real person. Kaufman replied that he completely agreed and that’s why it was both refreshing and hilarious. The exact same sort of description could be attached to Picnic (or also Wes Anderson movies).
The very last scene of Picnic is probably the largest example of it’s rather depressing, silly, light hearted, lovely and maddening recipe, but I wouldn’t spoil it for you in a million years. A very notable difference in Picnic is that in many ways it takes the complete opposite stance in movie making compared to most modern cinema today. The special effects are very sparing (there is a little bit of makeup that sort of resembles puppeteering actually). The locations may not have been built (the asylum was probably dressed up a bit, or different parts of it were shot in different locations). The film itself is only 72 minutes with no filler, as opposed to a 2 and a half hour epic. It probably didn’t cost that much money to produce other than to maybe hire Chara.
Micah Blowers will now go as off subject from Picnic like many epic films cluster botch their “themes.” Shunji Iwai made no attempt to throw in everything but the kitchen sink into this picture (although his version of an epic film would follow with Swallowtail Butterfly and All about Lily Chou Chou and I honestly think it’s why Picnic is better). You know what I’m talking about. Every massive film to be taken more seriously must have: really drawn out adventure to the farthest corners of their world, a large war to conquer, a love story that supposedly is the heart of the movie but rarely touched upon other than the couple making out upon pledges of rock chiseled devotion, 15 characters, urgent situations where all character development is instantly dropped and even at times forgotten for the rest of the picture, a sex scene where you get to overtly see the female’s naughty bits, a distinct and blatant representation of evil known as “the bad guy” to overcome or get revenge upon, and the new phenomena taken advantage of increasingly over the last decade known as “The plot twist (which is always completely contrived and impossible and always climaxes at the end for some reason. Likely it’s to sensationalize the audience).”
The list is much larger than this but you get the idea. It’s a paint-by-numbers formula that has been abused and overkilled more and more heavily over the last century. Very often these movies end up being about nothing at all because they were trying much too hard to cram too many ideas into one movie, instead of heavily developing and building off of one odd good one.
Is Picnic really that unique?
Now I’m not saying that Picnic was that fantastically different of a concept, it’s honestly not that deep of a movie nor is it trying to be, but it was refreshing to me that it mostly veered away from such a formula, paying no heed to such usual demands from both filmmakers and audiences. I don’t even think this movie was necessarily about anything specifically substantial either, but it certainly didn’t try to misrepresent itself as the largest most important melodrama ever.
I’d say that Picnic’s main goal is to offer a beautiful, silly, and almost fantasy like depiction of things we normally would see as just sad, depressingly, or horrible. It’s a perspective that none of us consider when we feel insane, depressed, or alone, and yet from an outsider looking at us we could very possibly indeed appear as all of the delightfully endearing magic that is Picnic. Perhaps the most inspirational thought about this film is that even though these characters are mentally disadvantaged and somewhat tortured from their pasts, that doesn’t seem to stop them from enjoying who they are or to go someplace new. None of them seem worried about the impending doom that the world could possibly end and they sort of welcome it. How often have you witnessed disadvantaged or downtrodden individuals outweighing themselves from doing what they really want and very much need to do? This, I believe is the wonderful feeling that will be left with you at the end of the movie: In Picnic, you are in fact and always will be truly free, even if the world or your own mind insists, tugs, and demands that you never will be.