Things have gone rather quiet around director Sogo Ishii. His latest film dates from 2005 and didn't exactly enjoy a broad release (still eagerly waiting for the DVD myself). A terrible shame, though it does give one the chance to catch up on some of his older, lesser known films. And so I sat down in front of August In The Water [Mizu no Naka no Hachigatsu], one of the hidden gems, yet to be discovered even by most fans.
Even more so than Shinya Tsukamoto, Sogo Ishii is the godfather of Japanese punk cinema. Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City put punk on the map a decade before Tsukamoto could even get started on Tetsuo. But Ishii also has a softer streak, put to maximum effect in Kysohin, his latest film. An ode to nature and humanity, far away from all the grit, dirt and noise so often featured in his films. Kyoshin seemed to be a serious shift in styles, but looking at August In The Water it seems he was merely revisiting themes already present in his earlier work.
August In The Water is a pretty strange mix of styles and genres. The film is part romance, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part coming of age with some meandering philosophy throw in. The balance between all these elements can be a little off at times but as a whole Ishii makes a pretty compelling film out of all this. There are still many links to his other films, but the resulting film is something completely different.
Everything starts when Izumi transfers schools and meets up with Ukiya. The first half hour is spent on their blossoming romance, but little by little the strange events surrounding their town are taking the forefront. A strange drought is started by two meteorites crashing on a nearby mountain, bringing with them a strange disease that turns people's internal organs to stone. Somehow Izumi and Ukiya end up in the middle of it all.
There's not much of Ishii's punk aesthetic left in August, but his keen eye for textures and architecture is still very much present. There are numerous impressive wide shots, abstract close-ups and neatly edited scenes that betray the hand of Ishii. Especially one sequence at the start of the film shot during a diving competition jumps out as the work of the cinematic master. On the whole not as direct and in your face, but hardly less impressive.
Even more so than the visuals Ishii lets the soundtrack do all the hard work. Dropping the punk sound completely he picks up an ambient soundtrack that gives the film a warm yet eerie atmosphere. The soundtrack really is the key to combining all the different aspects into one coherent film, making it a 120 minute trip into his surreal world. Acting is pretty decent, though some characters come off as a little silly. It's not the strongest cast, but the main characters are solid enough to keep the audience involved.
The first half hour is there to set the mood, from then on the film becomes gradually stranger and more unsettling. Never in a very direct or extreme way like Ishii's other films, but on a more subconscious level. The combination of the strange events, detached setting and ambient soundscapes reflect Ishii's typical trademark style and at the same time contradicts it just as much.
Fans of Sogo Ishii, and in particular Kyoshin, should do well to check out this film. It's probably one of his most accessible films, though there is still plenty of wonder and authorship to be admired. Without a doubt one of my favorite directors, with the ability to sculpt both subtle and extrovert films without losing any of his stylistic power. Definitely recommended.