The Japanese cyberpunk genre isn't that richly populated (understatement), and to make it worse many releases are almost impossible to find here in the West. It's a real shame, because it's without a doubt one of my favorite genres out there. Tsuburo no Gara is one of the prime examples of Japanese underground cyberpunk cinema and so it deserves some extra time in the spotlights. In short: strap yourselves in for 70 minutes of concrete, metal and moist.
Before you get too excited, I should warn you that there is no DVD or Blu-Ray out there with English (or any other language for that matter) subtitles. I was lucky enough to catch this film at the Dejima festival in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, but I haven't heard from it since. There isn't even an official DVD or poster (the one shown here is a fan poster), only a combined release on a PFF (Pia Film Festival) collection DVD.
While the film is quite low on cyber and actual punk, it does carry many of the stylistic traits of the genre, most notably the almost fetishistic way of focusing on specific details. Director Masafumi Yamada will swamp you in close-ups of moist skin, concrete walls, black misty puddles and a strange fascination for snails, creating a very tense and claustrophobic atmosphere in a mere 70 minutes.
My DVD doesn't have English subtitles and it's been quite a while since I watched the festival version, so the details of the story have faded a little since then. But the gist of the setup is still pretty clear. A man and woman wake up in a concrete structure, not knowing where they are or how they got there. The woman is a nurse, the man a patient with a rather peculiar metal structure strapped to his back. While they try to escape from their concrete prison, flashbacks reveal the true nature of the patient's illness. It's a simple setup, but cyberpunk cinema has never occupied itself too much with complex themes and storylines.
Visually I'm very much in two minds about this film. On one hand it's a beautifully shot movie, with much attention paid to composition, lighting and editing, sporting some impressive play of light and shadows. Every frame is impressive and clearly thought through, bathing in grey and green hues, turning the drab, concrete settings in a cyberpunk wonderland. Sadly the entire film is shot in 4:3, which, I'm sorry to say, is ugly as hell. While the images themselves are impressive and captivating, they feel cramped and somehow unfinished. No doubt it's somewhat of a personal preference, but a wider image would've done much more justice to the work of Yamada.
The soundtrack consists mostly of ambient sounds, structured or woven into hidden melodies and rhythms. Actual music (as most people will know it) is rather scarce (and of the minimal, experimental kind), but the entire film is set to the sounds of clanking metal, thumping concrete and falling water drops, so there's always something to listen to. Great stuff, not too original considering the genre it resides in, but still a welcome variation on the more crunchy and industrial-oriented noise that usually sits under this type of film.
The acting is sufficient, especially for a film that isn't necessarily all that character-oriented. The male lead reminded me a little of Tsukamoto and was clearly the best actor of the bunch, the female lead played her part with adequate conviction. As for the secondary cast, there are only a few other characters featured in the film, but considering their lacking screen time they are hardly worth discussing.
If you're worrying about watching this film without subtitles, you should know that even though the dialogue is kept to a minimum, you will still miss some of the finer details of the story. The main concept is clear enough though and whatever weirdness there is exists within the film itself and is not a result of the lack of translation. In the end, you shouldn't have too much trouble understanding what is going on, then again Tsuburo no Gara relies more on atmosphere and tension anyway.
When comparing it to other films out there, I noticed that Tsuburo no Gara shows quite some similarities to Tsukamoto's Haze (which it predates by a year). While the first part is quite claustrophobic and direct, the ending reveals a more symbolic interpretation of the film's events. Both films release their main characters back into the real world, freeing them from their inner contraptions and shedding a different light on what happened before.
Tsuburo no Gara is first-grade cyberpunk cinema. Not as overly energetic or chaotic as its peers, rather it creates an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere that drags you deeper into its concrete prison with each successive scene. Sporting a stunning setting, strong cinematography and a superb soundtrack, cyberpunk fans owe it to themselves to seek this one out, even when there are no suitable subtitles available. I promise you won't regret it. Absolutely recommended.