Occupying pretty much the same cultural territory in Japan that Pulp Fiction occupies in America, Iwai Shunji’s Swallowtail Butterfly is a seismic shockwave of sci-fi cool that exploded onto the Japanese film scene and electrified a generation. Near-future sci-fi shot with handheld cameras and edited to a twitchy rhythm, Swallowtail Butterfly posits an alternate history where an economically flush Japan has attracted millions of immigrants who live in the Yentown ghettos, working on the margins, always on the hustle, trying to score that yen. Pop star Chara plays, well, a pop star who achieves fame when her Yentown comrades co-opt a Yakuza cash scam and become rich enough to open a nightclub and release albums. Fueled by composer Takeshi Kobayashi’s exuberantly moody J-pop soundtrack, the violent, propulsive, sexy film sheds ideas at the speed of light about identity, ethnicity, and how money builds and how it destroys. Seeing it today is like re-reading your high-school diary: the way it wears its heart on its sleeve can be cringe-inducing, but you have to admire its willingness to lay it all on the line. You watch Swallowtail Butterfly in awe and wish that today’s filmmakers had this kind of courage, which you can have only when you’re young and in love with film.
20th Anniversary Screening · Q&A with Iwai Shunji