Beginning with 2001′s “Ichiban Utsukushi Natsu (Firefly Dreams),” a Yasujiro Ozu-esque drama about a friendship that develops between a rebellious teenage girl and an elderly former actress in the countryside, John Williams has been directing films in Japan with Japanese talent that do not proclaim their gaijin-ness. At the same time, he is not trying to make fake “Japanese movies” for foreign or local consumption.
Instead, with admirable integrity and what some might call Welsh stubbornness, he has been putting his own visions on film, which in the neo-noir “Starfish Hotel” (2006) and the new “Sado Tenpesuto (Sado Tempest)” tend toward the dark and turbulent.
He has also become more experimental and adventurous. If “Firefly Dreams” was a quietly humanistic, beautifully shot film in the Golden Age mold, “Sado Tempest” is a melange of punk music, dystopian fantasy, Noh and the Bard. Instead of Ozu, Williams seems to be channeling Teruo Ishii, whose 1969 cult shocker “Kyofu Kikei Ningen: Edogawa Rampo Zenshu (Horrors of Malformed Men)” mixed “The Island of Doctor Moreau” with butoh dance. The titular storm refers to William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” on which it is loosely based.
The film begins with a loud, slamming, apocalyptic number by a real-life punk band called Jitterbug, filmed in noirish black-and-white that ends with the scowling lead singer Juntoku (Yasunori Henmi) falling flat on the stage.
The scene shifts to the island of Sado, Niigata Prefecture, filmed in stormily atmospheric color, where the four band members have been transported by a sinister security guy (Yoji Tanaka) and his cronies for crimes against a near-future state. The musicians are housed in a prison and forced to pan for gold on the rugged seacoast by the brutal Caliban-ish warden (Kyokaku Ichi), who proclaims himself king of the island — and tells them they can never escape.
So far, so dystopian music video. But the film becomes deeper and stranger with the appearance of a madwoman named Miranda (Noriko Eguchi), who chants enigmatic lines from a Noh play that was set on Sado, and her Prospero-ish father, Omuro (Hirotaro Honda), a scientist who came to the island to perform presumably now-outlawed experiments and who lingers on as a hunted, magelike figure. Juntoku becomes fascinated with Miranda’s demon-inspired poetry, and begins to put it to music.
There is more to the story, both bloody and mysterious, but the film is less concerned with its plot points, including the central one of the band’s eventual fate, than it is with the intersections of words and music, insanity and inspiration, East (Sado) and West (Shakespeare) and the world of the dead and the living — the theme of many a noh play.
This is an ambitious program for a film centered on a little-known independent punk band and its nonactor lead singer, and Williams, who also wrote the script, doesn’t always smoothly resolve the contradictions inherent in his pop/sci-fi/folklorish/Shakespearean material. When the exiled band is given instruments and told to make music that will profit its keepers, it’s hard not to think of the old Hollywood musicals that latched onto any excuse to “put on a show.”
At the same time, Williams surrounds the perpetually glowering Henmi as Juntoku with veteran actors, including Eguchi and Honda, whose distinctive presences and seasoned, stylized performances give the film needed classical gravitas.
Williams and cameraman Yoshinobu Hayano also extract visual drama and mystery from their Sado locations, including the rugged, stormy coast, where many a real-life exile once cast longing, despairing glances across the churning white caps to their former homes. But for all its effective use of local cultural artifacts, including the Sado versions of taiko drumming and noh, the film is no tourist promo for the island.
Instead, it becomes a fantastic voyage beyond cultures and eras to strange islands in the subconscious we seldom visit save in dreams. What’s it all about? The Bard, as always, has the answer:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
All screenings of “Sado Tenpesuto” at Eurospace in Shibuya, Tokyo, will include English subtitles.