Stephen reviews: Red Spectacles (1987)

Red Spectacles [紅い眼鏡, Akai Megane] (1987)

Starring Shigeru Chiba, Machiko Washino, Hideyuki Tanaka, Tessho Genda, Mako Hyodo, Yasuo Otsuka, Hideyo Amamoto

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

I ended my review of Stray Dog, the second film in the Kerberos Saga, with the hope that Red Spectacles would offer more of anything. I guess you really should be careful what you wish for, because I got a lot more all right. This first film in the series has plenty of activity to keep my attention, but note I say “activity,” not “action.” Mostly, what I got more of is that inexplicable campy humor that cropped up from time to time in Stray Dog. Not that Red Spectacles is billed as a comedy, or that it really tries to be, but you have to laugh when the main character is ambushed in the shower and takes out an entire squad of armed men with exaggerated wrestling moves while butt naked. This also marks the only time I have ever seen a slow pan from feet to head of a man taking a shower instead of a woman.

There is one great action scene at the beginning of the film, where three of those armored Kerberos members get assaulted by a veritable army of gang members. Sure, it has “B-movie” written all over it, but it’s a wonderfully arranged scene with tons of clever moments. And when they finish, they take stock of how much ammo they have left. The first has 30 rounds left, the second just five, and the last guy says, “I have one, that is, in my gut.” Then he keels over from his injury. Can you honestly say that isn’t fantastic?

Unfortunately, from there on out it’s all campy absurdity and one of the weirdest spy dramas I’ve ever seen. I was left feeling somewhat misled by that first action scene, but more so I think it was Jin-Roh, the final film of the series, that misled me. I came from Jin-Roh expecting this series to be full of action and the moral grey areas of a police force fighting terrorism with despotic brutality. While the first two films touch upon those themes, I’m left with the realization that Jin-Roh is the odd one out, and very unlike the others. Try as I might, I simply could not get rid of my expectations for this film, and that left me with a dissatisfaction that Red Spectacles doesn’t wholly deserve.

I use the word “wholly” for a reason. The film is very strange, and not truly the spy thriller it sells itself as. After the opening shootout, which is a vastly different version of Koichi leaving his teammates than what was in Stray Dog, the film turns black and white and zips ahead to Koichi returning to Japan to find his old comrades. The dates in this film also do not match up at all with the dates in Stray Dog, so it seems that Oshii decided to rewrite history after making this movie.

Along his journey, Koichi is being tracked down by a government spy. He has a name, but since I called the guy from Stray Dog “White Spy,” I’ll just refer to this guy as “Black Spy.” Sounds like a spy thriller so far, right? However, the massive supply of wacky humor overrides that premise. Just try not to laugh when Koichi, suffering from a bad bowl of ramen, staggers from an out-of-order bathroom stall, to an occupied stall, to finally a urinal with fish swimming around in it. There’s also the very surreal nature of the story. As Koichi gets captured and escapes again and again, you begin to realize that amid his multiple times being knocked unconscious a large portion of the story has been a dream sequence, and you are left figuring out how much of the film has been a hallucination. The intellectual cohesiveness of a spy story is far from what this film delivers.

I’ve seen films that delve into a character’s psyche in this way, and I’ve seen this kind of campy slapstick comedy before, too. But never have I seen the two melded together in quite this way. It makes for one of the most bizarre movie experiences out there, and you’re never sure which way the film is going to jump. Black Spy mostly shows up spouting cryptic warnings and interrogation questions. So when Koichi runs away in his latest escape and bumps into Black Spy in a dark alley you are completely unprepared for the dance routine that Black Spy gives before fading into the shadows. these moments of utter absurdity crop up frequently over the course of the film, and yet the overall tone feels dark and sinister, not just a satire of the dystopian future genre. If that ominous tone and setting were meant to be some kind of sarcasm, then it’s a kind that was completely lost in translation.

I still don’t know quite what Oshii was trying to do in this film, and distinguishing between the comedic illogic and the surrealistic illogic is enough to make your head spin, but there are other layers to the oddity as well. One of those was heavily impacted by my viewing of Stray Dog, where Inui spent the entire film dragging around a huge luggage case that turns out to have his armor inside. Koichi also spends the entire film dragging around a suitcase, and the whole film built up a tension for me while I waited for him to pop it open. I was hoping for a grand finale with the film turning back into color as he dons the armor and tears up the bad guys in a scene to rival the opening action sequence. Sadly, while we do get to see that armor one more time at the end, it is not in any action scenes like I wanted, and I still don’t quite understand what was going on with that suitcase.

Another head-scratcher of the film is its constant images of a pretty woman plastered all over the place. From the moment the movie turns black and white, we are bombarded with the exact same poster covering nearly every available surface in the film. We finally get to meet her at the end of the story, but I never could figure out who she was supposed to be or what she was supposed to be doing. So let’s add her to the pile of confusing things in this movie.

I really don’t know what to make of Red Spectacles, and despite my disappointment with it, that was largely because of my flawed expectations. I can’t really call this a bad movie, but it certainly isn’t going to be good for most people. It’s going to take a particular appreciation for the abnormal to get any enjoyment from this film. I actually love weird. And this goes beyond weird. It is bizarre. Not the most bizarre movie I’ve ever seen, but certainly in the top ten. Maybe I’ll be able to get more out of it if I watch it again some day. I’m sure I will eventually. This film is far too strange for me to leave alone forever.

6 comments to Stephen reviews: Red Spectacles (1987)

  • I definitely think I’ll have to watch these at some point. They seem far too strange and unique to ignore.

    Great review too, although every time you referenced the previous (next) film Stray Dog, I thought you were talking about the Kurosawa noir film until I remembered that the sequel to this was called Stray Dog. And that happened like every time you said it. My brain is weird.

    • They’re definitely some odd films, and I would love to hear your take on them. Glad you enjoyed the review. I wasn’t happy with it at first, but after a week I looked at it and decided it was fine after all. That seems to happen to me quite a bit.

      Haha, I can’t consider it odd that your mind would favor a Kurosawa film over a Mamoru Oshii film. I haven’t seen that one, or I might have realized that myself. I need to brush up on my Kurosawa some day. I keep seeing Throne of Blood at the library, and then forgetting to check it out.

      • Hahaha, I do that same thing with reviews. I usually have one of two responses after I finish my rough draft: “What a piece of shit. Eh, I’ll fix it later” or “That was fantastic!” Inevitably when I come back to edit them, I think the “shit” ones are actually fine, and the “fantastic” ones are just OK. So it would seem that my quality it consistent, but my perception of it changes depending on mood.

        Ah man, Throne of Blood is fantastic. Kurosawa is one of my most favorite directors (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before), so one of these days I’ll have to get some reviews of his stuff up here.

        But yeah, it might be a while but when I get some time I’m gonna watch these.

  • Horvis

    I think it’s just disappointing that fans of thrillers like Jin Roh are left hanging with nothing else to watch. There are the comics that are more similar in tone to Jin Roh, but they’re not even in english. There are other works set in this universe relating to… fast food grifters.

    • Stephen

      Yeah, there is so much potential for the Kerberos Saga, but Jin-Roh is the only film to capture it. It is important to keep in mind that Jin-Roh is the last of the films, though, so it was the one that took a different approach to the series. Of course, there is the manga as you mentioned so I guess that’s not completely true. I would like to see the manga released in English, but I’m sure it would be left unreversed like all the others are nowadays.

      Fast food grifters? Sounds hilariously weird. I might have to look into it just to see what the hell is going on.

  • Well, maybe I’am late to the party…
    Actually, Koichi dies very early in the movie, when the PBS-team assaults him in the shower. This, coincidally is the moment the movie goes all surreal, for we leave the ‘real’ world and see Koichi’s dying dream.The cut back to reality happens at the end, after the scene where Koichi meets the Kerberos Armor and the cut back to him lying dead in the shower.
    The image of the woman is plastered all over because she was his contact (the card with the number he called in the taxi on his way to the hotel), and therefore her image is still fresh in his mind, so her face appears everywhere. The only question in the end is if Midori or the nameless woman betrayed him to the PBS, but it doesn’t matter, for at the end of his dream Koichi realized he simply returned to Japan far too late to change anything, for it it all ‘in the past now’, and ‘the only one waiting was me all along’.
    Ultimately this isn’t a spy drama at all, but an introspective exploration of Koichi’s psyche and especially the gilt he feels towards his former comrades.

    This said, having Stray Dog in the same style as Jin Roh would be a blast.

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