This Week: The Midnight Parasites (Kiseichuu no Ichiya)
Yōji Kuri was, at one point in the 1960’s, the most internationally famous Japanese independent animator. The unofficial “head” of the Animation Association of Three (Animation Sannin no Kai) group by virtue of his prolific output, even among his two peers which included Ryohei Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe, he was instrumental in spearheading a wider awareness and celebration of Japanese experimental and adult animation in film and counter-cultural circles.
Yet, I have never before touched on any of Kuri’s works on this blog.
The Midnight Parasites is a nearly ten minute long film released in 1972. By which point, the director had already released acclaimed film festival hallmarks like Stamp Fantasy (Kitte no Gensou ; 1961), Two Pikes (Ni Hiki no Sanma ; 1961), which would even receive a later remake in color with editorial differences, and Love (Ai ; 1963).
I have my own opinions on them all of course, and I would in particular like to write about Stamp Fantasy sometime soon [Edit: I have since done just that], but I do not want the more specific subject of this post to get too far away from me. My point being, by the early 1970’s, Kuri had built a sizable reputation for his varied subjects, dark humor, and his seemingly methods of stylistic approach. A more comprehensive summation of Yōji Kuri and this initial decade wave of independent Japanese animation can be found on AniPages Daily.
As in most things, a creative figure with degrees of success and numerous projects under their belt can seek to push themselves in even further directions they never before thought possible. Certainly all the more so when one does an ample amount of experimental short film animation.
The Midnight Parasites, if it seeks to do anything, is to certainly attempt to capture new worlds.
While there are certainly multiple distinct exceptions, many of Kuri’s works have some degree of narrative path the viewer can follow. Then there are his dives into more surrealist elements, such as Tragedy on the G Line (G Sejou no Higeki ; 1969) or The Bathroom (1970). And, perhaps furthest out of there of all, The Midnight Parasites only a few years later.
Without question it is the type of indulgent animation for animation’s sake that would make more than one viewer give the kind of flippant knee-jerk “only people who are high could enjoy this” reaction that tends to disappoint me at least a little when I look for outside internet opinions on experimental films such as this. There are so many difficult facets to surrealist art in its construction and visual flow, let alone trying to make the entire operation move on screen coherently. To dismiss the creative process involved as requiring mind altering substances to appreciate seems to greatly undervalue the effort required to successfully transport one to a universe with such alien geometry and order compared to our own.
Perhaps the closest other production covered on this blog already I could liken The Midnight Parasites to would, of all things, be Naohisa Inoue’s Iblard Time (Iblard Jikan). That particular work is akin to a sort of guided tour of a fantasy country, from its agricultural and seaside views to its more populated communities and cities. Kuri’s film, meanwhile, is like a sort of wildlife tour of its hellish fictional land.
Humanoid bodies that fly upward from lakes to be eaten and kabobed by waiting fanged creatures of the sky, as the body parts from excessive bites rain down below. The appendages collected by other humanoids of different hues, who carry them off in baskets and by wheels as if they were harvesting food and supplies. So many life forms preying on others, ranging from the insectoid, to fishlike, to a winged dinosaur like creature, as they devour what we would most identify as creatures similar to our own humanity. That is, if such victims are lucky. Others meet fates of having eggs laid on them, as the hatchlings commit to their own initial feasting upon the host. Elsewhere, a circle of humanoid figures crawling around a seemingly exalted tower, as they eternally defecate gold coins the individual behind then handedly gobbles up, as the process repeats on and on seemingly without external command. A winged creature similar to a human, but with birdlike eyes and beak on their butt, devours their food from that orifice only to later evacuate it via their other end and what we would identify as as a more person figured head. A large black ant grabbing a terrified and later very dead humanoid from a tree, to drag their carcass across the fields while taking extra special care to pause and visually cackle before dragging them underground. Many of the fields themselves have eyes, legs, and other body parts jutting from them.
This does not even begin to cover the raw amount of visuals within the film.
To be sure, it is always moving forward, consistently showing new and yet familiar things, material which one can identify with while also clearly making prods at the darker corner of ones mind.
It is important to note that this is all accomplished with an art style which dances around careful uses of color and detail.
Specifically, the background art throughout is by and large kept to white fills and black lines, while the subjects of a given segment are colored more vibrantly. This keeps the emphasis extremely high on the primary actor/s of a given moment, as they would be what the eye is most naturally going to be drawn to. At the same time however, the background art often has equal levels of detail on a linework level; cracked clouds which spew fluids, strange creatures we never see closer up or more featured as a subject, and so on. It seeks to heighten the sense of discomfort or discovery, as these elements will often be glossed over by the eye at first, only to a bit later jut out at them. All of a sudden one sees the eyeball glaring in the rocky crevices of a mountain, where they previously did not. It is a simple, been keenly effective trick of color application which adds to the aspect of slowly discovering what makes this world operate and how it looks. The idea that, once we think we understand something about the setting at hand, we see even within the same background further layers to comprehend.
The music, composed by Hiroshi Yamazaki, is one constant track that leans heavily on throaty, electronic twangs and echoing reverberation. Methodical pacing, a little discordant, and yet probably a bit calming in many parts. It is a highly appropriate musical flavor for a tour such as this, similar to the sense one may have were they watching from the side something like a steamroller crush down upon far smaller and malleable entities. Things can seem loud, but they are also contained. So long as the viewer keeps their arms and legs in their appropriate places and has the right safety gear, there is little inherent danger for them despite a significant amount of dangerous activity occurring right before their eyes.
It is not like the entities in the animation can burst out and harm the viewer, after all. This safari tour is intimate and safe. So we are instead attempting to best prod the foreboding psychological sense that danger is all around, and indeed occurring before us, but it does not pose a threat to us ourselves. It is a valuable line to walk, as that is a kind of unease in its own way to attempt to sell.
There is a sense of a strange voyeuristic vibe, in a way, touched on by all of this and the emotional tenor involved in such musical messages. A secure performance aspect, despite the brutality. The sense that one would not want the things done to their own body that they are seeing happen to others in front of them, as there is a sympathy or identification with the humanoids due to our own similarities in shape.
And yet, here we are, watching these nameless individuals have their lives drained away en masse.
The Midnight Parasites, as a short work by an influential animation director who is thankfully still with us even today as of this writing (retired from film though he may be), is easy to recommend on those grounds alone.
It is a challenging work to be sure, and to be completely honest I am not completely sold on it myself despite writing everything which has preceded this. There are such strong points of clear symbolism and thematic interpretation I can suss out, while at the same time in other areas even seconds later it can feel like it is not trying to make a message at all. Then if that is good or bad, to its benefit and freedom or if that muddies the final product all the more by switching between such opposing gears.
It is a film I would submit to someone as a kind of field trip. In that I feel it demands the viewer to engage with it, to view its exhibits and sample what information it has to provide visitors. And to then, after the excursion is well past concluded, talk about it with others on the metaphorical bus ride back later that day. One can not stay in field trip mode forever, after all, just like The Midnight Parasites is a short film. What did one see, how did they feel, and so forth.
And perhaps one feels a lot right away, or perhaps they come to more greatly value their experience after hearing tales of others and how their reactions then resonate with them internally. Feeling nothing at all, or even a negative reflection, is too valuable and acceptable. One is merely looking for constructive participation. There are only so many stops before one needs to call it a day, and the reactions or what other folks feel they saw come to frame each other. One of the greatest strengths of surrealism as an art form is its potential to lead to wildly divergent interpretations, after all.
We could, in all of this, be seeking to push to provide a viewing and opinion buffet fit for even the haughty throned leader bug as they sit content and complete their own toilet throne as they gorge themselves on all comers to the slaughter.
Which may then be what this film would find most darkly humorous of all.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.