There are no raccoons in Princess Raccoon; the word is a convenient but misleading translation of tanuki, the Japanese term for an adorable critter who lives in the woods and thrives in folklore. A clowning, mischievous shapeshifter, the tanuki of myth delights in tricking humans and sports an immense, highly elastic scrotum that he puts to a variety of creative uses. His statue can be found at the doors of temples and restaurants throughout Japan, the giant ball sack replaced by an alternate tradition’s plump belly. Chubby tanuki is the version typically represented in contemporary pop culture. You will not sprout giant balls when donning the “Tanooki Suit” in Super Mario Bros., but you can check out some nifty genital antics in Pom Poko, an animated feature that makes delicate reference to “pouches” on its dubbed U.S. release.
Knowing a bit about tanuki helps make sense of Princess Raccoon, but it’ll take more than Wikipedia to crack this extremely nutty movie. Set in a fairytale universe governed by the laws of groovy, here’s a musical so flamboyantly idiosyncratic it makes Moulin Rouge (2001) look like Moulin Rouge (1952). Let’s put it this way: The crazy quilt of musical styles—from opera, folk, and show tunes to power-ballads, hop-hop, and arena-ready cock rock—is easily the least crazy thing about it.
Orchestrating the madness is Seijun Suzuki, director of classic yakuza freakouts like Tokyo Drifter (1966), Branded to Kill (1967), and the avant-garde hitwoman spectacular Pistol Opera (2001). Most audiences know him by the stylistic fingerprints he left on Kill Bill. Few have been lucky enough to relish Princess Raccoon on the big screen. Premiered on the final day of Cannes 2005, it was met by an exhausted press corps with either euphoria or annoyance, then failed to secure U.S. distribution as it traveled the festival circuit. Come on people, how much more do you need? How much more could a movie possibly give?
Zhang Ziyi stars as the princess of Tanuki Palace, home to an eccentric court of jesters, handmaidens, metamorphic sprites, and a trio of impish little girls with songs in their hearts and big bushy tails sprouting from their rumps. Meanwhile, over at Garasa Castle, a vain, boorish king (Mikijiro Hira) broods over a prophecy that his son will outshine him in beauty. A ninja called Ostrich Monk is dispatched to ambush the prince and exile him to wilderness. Having materialized from a digital waterfall in what can only be described as Björkian splendor, the princess encounters the prince and they fall madly, musically in love. The rage of the king, a quest for the Frog of Paradise, and numerous flamboyant non-sequiturs ensue.
Princess Raccoon may be rooted in folklore, Western music, and traditional Japanese theater, but when it comes to classic cinema conventions, the agenda is total derangement. Standard continuity has been replaced by a jag of jump cuts, irregular perspectives, and dizzying shifts of scale. Actors leap in and out of virtual space, one minute occupying a snow globe tableau (white plastic snow; black Styrofoam trees), the next drifting down a river of pixels rendered like an enlarged detail from a Pop Art canvas. Largely shot on soundstages dressed with blatantly fake props and backdrops, the movie develops an atmosphere of hallucinated artifice so pervasive that the few unaltered exterior scenes feel as unreal as those generated entirely by computer. Expressionistic doesn’t begin to describe the lighting. The sound design hiccups with unaccountable electronic blurps.
Conceptually, this synthesis of movies, theater, opera, painting, dance, fashion, sculpture, and animation falls somewhere between the Hollywood musical and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle. Fortunately, the tone couldn’t be more different from that turgid art world ego-trip; for all its sophisticated razzle-dazzle, this goofball gesamtkuntswerk connects back to the origins of movies through slapstick, pantomime, melodrama, and magic.
Princess Raccoon shows Suzuki at the top of his game, the rules of which he makes up on the spot like some demented Dungeon Master. This week’s other video lovely, The Woman in the Window, finds Fritz Lang engineering a clockwork noir of diabolical determinism.
Tick. Psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) delivers a lecture on the ethical spectrum of murder. Tock. He kisses his wife and kids goodbye as they depart for a trip at Grand Central Station. Tick. Wanley stands enraptured before a painting of a beautiful woman displayed next door to his social club. Tock. Over drinks and cigars, the boys grumble about middle-aged boredom. Tick. Again at the window, our hero is startled by an uncanny doubling; the face of the model reflected in the glass. Tock. He turns: Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), femme fatale! Tick, tock, glamour, seduction, rendezvous, a jealous lover, a pair of scissors, a stabbing, a corpse, a pact, police, blackmail, paranoia, wet-dark streets, pitch black fate, the turn of the screw, the creep of the camera, a delicious denouement, a dastardly denouement, a masterpiece.
TOP FIVE DVD RELEASES THIS WEEK
1. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944) MGM. Diabolic noir from Fritz Lang’s heavenly American period.
2. Princess Raccoon (Seijun Suzuki, 2005) Geneon. Evidence that the 84 year-old Suzuki views his golden years as the moment to go completely, gloriously bonkers.
3. The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946) MGM. Suave Connecticut noir with Welles as a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Edward G. Robinson as the G-man on his trail.
4. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006). Typecast Releasing. Acclaimed Iraq doc comes home, supplemented by Sari’s Mother, a self-contained outtake that rivals the feature for intensity of vision.
5. Police Beat (Robinson Devor, 2005) Homevision. This inventive, episodic indie about a Senegalese immigrant employed as a Seattle bike cop suggested interesting things to come from Devor, who proceeded to make an avant-garde docudrama about a man fucked to death by a horse.
Last week: Sans Soleil and La Jetée Hit DVD
Commentary Track, Nathan Lee’s DVD column, runs biweekly.