By Thomas Puhr.
Despite some striking imagery and a strong central performance, Videophobia never exceeds a low boil.”
Daisuke Miyazaki’s Videophobia (2019) begins with an extended masturbation scene. You’d think such an opener would – at the very least – grab the viewer’s attention, but the sequence somehow lands with a thud. Neither critical nor erotic, it seems to exist for little reason beyond a halfhearted attempt at shock value; it betrays a film which is neither as thoughtful nor transgressive as it so desperately wants to be. Despite some striking imagery and a strong central performance, Videophobia never exceeds a low boil.
Tomona Hirota stars as Ai, a woman drifting through late twenty-something ennui. She eats in silence while her younger sisters play on their phones and discuss Disney (“The level of realism in Disneyland is much higher” than that of Universal Studios, one of them observes in an all-too-rare moment of cutting humor); walks moodily to her dead-end job (this protagonist would have felt right at home in an Antonioni film); and spends her nights scrolling through internet porn. On one such evening, she discovers footage of herself with a one-night stand, who secretly recorded and posted a video of their sexual encounter. Ai’s attempts to escape this horrific invasion of privacy fuel the rest of the story.
Miyazaki seems to have had a clear vision of where Ai’s journey would begin and end, but the intervening narrative is a patchwork of half-baked ideas and indulgent references to better films. Mascot animals, for example, pop up on the city streets every once in a while because – well, because a guy in a rabbit costume can be creepy (I wonder if this is a nod to 2006’s Inland Empire, since Lynch is a clear source of inspiration). I don’t think there’s much else to it, and the overall result smacks of artsy posturing. That some of the writer-director’s surrealistic excursions work (to Ai’s horror, more videos of the night in question appear online: from angles and distances which she – and we – would have noticed) makes those which don’t all the more grating.
Any genre filmmaker draws from a corpus of influences, but Miyazaki’s allusions are distractingly obvious: a face peel mask Ai wears is a cosmetic variation of Tatsuya Nakadai’s bandaged head from The Face of Another (1966); a pre-operation face traced with colored pencil will remind horror buffs of Eyes Without a Face (1960); there’s even a visit to a clandestine organization via a meatpacking plant, ala Seconds (1966). In his attempt to transplant ‘60s-era paranoid thrillers and early body horror to an internet-saturated contemporary Japan, Miyazaki captures some of the style but little of the substance.
Thanks to social media, it’s now easier to don another “face” than it was for the antiheroes from the above examples, but Miyazaki never digs into the increasingly hazy line separating our on- and offline personas. When Ai visits an organization to report the video, an investigator gives her some troubling advice: “It’s said the total annual viewing time worldwide of all the videos on the [pornographic] website is roughly 5 billion hours…It’ll be a cosmic amount of time when combined with other websites…You either take those videos as part of it or see the woman [in the video] as somebody else.” This is all good, thought-provoking stuff (Is the internet our true cosmos?), though none of it is explored in any depth.
The film’s Blu-ray release – the latest from the ever-expanding Kani label – is beautifully packaged; most intriguing among its special features is a new short from Miyazaki, entitled I’ll Be Your Mirror (2022). The short itself functions as a mirror to Videophobia; if the latter concerns one person with multiple identities, then the former concerns one identity in multiple people. In it, two women spend an evening home with their husband, who speaks to them as if they are one. Like its antecedent, I’ll Be Your Mirror is far more interesting in theory than execution. Its abrupt ending doesn’t suggest ambiguity as much as it does uncertainty; it just sort of ends, as if its creator didn’t quite know what to do with his admittedly clever idea.
Although the disc includes a short video introduction by the director, more illuminating is the interview – with Seventh Row’s Justine Smith – featured in the accompanying booklet. When asked about the above “5 billion hours” scene, his response reveals a fascination with individual fears and desires within a vast, unforgiving universe: “I tend to think, OK, there’s a big tragedy happening to me, but compared with space or the galaxy, it is nothing. But at the same time, it is everything. What everyone feels in that moment…is the only real thing in the world.” Such insights rarely translate into these films, though.
How do we get out of this self-centered mindset? Of course, it is all too easy to point an accusatory finger at the internet, but Miyazaki is no such alarmist. In his video introduction, he notes how the Kani release “is a big chance for me to reach someone who I can’t even imagine” and urges viewers to discuss Videophobia online. Meaningful connection is crucial, regardless of whether or not it transpires via a computer screen.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.