Analysis of a scene from Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly is the Japanese film directed by Shunji Iwai in 1996. It includes many specific features and cinematographic techniques used that make it an outstanding phenomenon and an important stage of the world cinematography’s development. In my opinion, one of the most exciting and characteristic scenes is that of the dead prostitute’s “funeral” realized in a police department by her colleagues. It is the first episode where the watcher recognizes the face of the main character, and, in fact, it is the first action scene where those techniques characteristic for the whole movie appear. In my opinion, this episode establishes the essentials of the film’s both narrative and technical sides. The scene of the prostitute’s “funeral” implicitly includes the further scenes’ technical realization and presupposes the direction of the plot’s development.

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The analysis of the episode should start from the visual techniques’ evaluation. Thus, in general, the filmmaker uses many technical devices that make the movie completely untypical and allows the viewer to feel both confusion and curiosity. In this way, Shunji Iwai tries to create new Japanese way of filmmaking and seeks for the relevant devices to describe the reality of modern Japan with its cultural and economic transformations (Inuhiko Yomota 81-82). In my opinion, Swallowtail Butterfly is an attempt to express some Japanese perception of the world via the Western visual devices.

The scene of the prostitute’s “funeral” is represented mostly by such techniques as close-ups and cut-ins. In such a way, the watcher’s constantly focuses attention on different details without any general perspective. Thus, the objects of focusing are prostitutes’ and policemen’s faces as well as those objects the prostitutes use for the “funeral” (cigarettes, rice, and, especially, burning money). Besides, when a policeman sees the fire, he uncovers the dead prostitute’s body, and the watcher sees the body with a girl near it. The filmmaker uses a mid-shot to shift the viewer’s attention and underline the importance of relationships between a dead woman and a calm girl who stands near her head.

As for the specifics of the scene’s editing, there are constant jump-cuts and cross-cuttings. By such combination of these techniques, the filmmaker achieves an effect of the watcher’s presence; and each jump-cut serves as a look from another perspective, just like one turns his or her head. To achieve this effect, the producer also uses hand-held cameras instead of static camera that provides a stable picture, which produces a less realistic impression. As for the use of cross-cutting, the main point of that is to show that both policemen and prostitutes act simultaneously, but in different ways.

In my opinion, the lighting in this episode (as well as in the whole movie) is the most important marker used for objects underlining. Shunji Iwai uses intensive light that is changed by backlighting as well as low-key lighting in particular situations. For example, the scene under analysis opens with low-key lighting, when some important objects (especially the officers’ faces) are lighted intensively. The filmmaker combines these devices in order to achieve the mentioned effect of the watcher’s presence. The intensive light serve as the vector of the viewer’s attention. For example, when an officer uncovers the prostitute’s body, and the camera shots the body and a girl, at first the body is under the light when the girl is totally darkened. After a moment, the perspective changes and the girl becomes lighted (by the backlighting from the window). In this way, the watcher’s attention shifts between those objects the filmmaker considers to be the most important in each concrete moment.

The musical supplement of the scene plays a very important role in the viewer’s perception. Thus, the episode opens without any music, and only the prostitutes’ crying is heard. This detail, as well as other devices already analysed, also serves for the mentioned effect of presence. After a moment, the policemen start to ask the crying prostitutes about the dead one. Such copying of the funeral ceremony when a priest speaks about the dead person when others cry comes to the highest point with the burning of money and the body’s uncovering. At this moment, the audience hears slow melodic and soft music that underlines the importance of Ageha (the girl) and follows this character to the next scene. In this way, all analyzed cinematic devices perform the same function: they help to create the realistic atmosphere and underline the most important objects and a moment. Thus, the significant point in the episode of the prostitute’s funeral is the body’s uncovering that shifts the attention from the dead woman to her daughter who stands near.

The importance of the devices mentioned through the prism of the plot’s development is crucial. Thus, by means of the full scope of these techniques, the filmmaker demonstrates the main motifs of the movie. One of the main motifs is the conflict between the foreigners (in the scene they are the crying prostitutes) and the Japanese people (they are policemen). The differences between their relation to the dead body as well as the Japanese policemen’s inability to understand the foreign funeral rites are very illustrative. At the same time, both policemen and prostitutes have to find a common language in order to treat correctly the dead woman and her daughter. In this regard, Yomota claims that the film “has a duality that mythically presents Tokyo’s ethnic problems while concealing them at the same time” (81). The mythological motif underlined by Yomota (81) represents itself not only through the plot but also through the shadows and intensive light, via which the conflict reaches the highest degree of realization and blows in the moment of the watcher’s attention’s shift (the dead body’s uncovering). It is also important that the role of money highlighted in the introductory scene becomes clear when the prostitutes burn them, in such a way initiating the attention’s shift. In fact, in this episode money play the role of the source of motion and transformation in all possible senses. The audience already learned from the introductory scene that the money is the reason why immigrants come to Yentown. Through this prism, the scene with the burning banknotes has a specific symbolical meaning.

The watcher’s acquaintance with Ageha is also an important detail of the episode achieved with the help of the mentioned visual devices. The viewer does not know either the name of the girl or the kind of relationships that connected her with the dead woman. Besides, it becomes clear that the girl is the main character because her appearance is the most important point of the scene; and this is the reason why the mentioned shift of the watcher’s attention is needed. The girl does not belong neither to the prostitutes (she does not cry with them) nor to the policemen. When a policeman asks her about the dead woman, she answers that she is not her mother (Swallowtail Butterfly). In such a way, Ageha cuts off all connections that tie her to other people. At the same time, she is a girl who needs care and protection, and that is the reason why she cannot achieve the independence postulated. This paradoxical situation of one’s inability to be apart from the society he or she does not want to belong to is the main motif of the movie. Yomota claims that Swallowtail Butterfly is “the anatomy of dependence” (84). In my opinion, this remark is highly relevant due to the reasons mentioned.

The personality of the watcher is as important as that of the main character. By means of separating Ageha from other characters, the filmmaker achieves the effect of the girl’s closeness to the audience. The primary role for this achievement plays the mentioned effect of the watcher’s presence realized by hand-left cameras, jump-cuts, cross-cutting, contrasts between darkness and intensive light, and other visual devices. The viewer does not see the girl before the moment of the attention’s shift, and at that point they may feel compassion for the only one person who does not belong to the world of the movie as well as to the watcher. This connection between Ageha and the audience makes Yomota say that the main reason for the film’s popularity is the main character’s closeness to those watchers who cannot find their place in this world (88). In this regard, Yomota underlines: “Everything that appear here is presented with a tourist-like curiosity that mixes utopia with fairytales” (82). In fact, this remark is equally right for both Ageha and the watcher. In this way, the filmmaker makes the viewer compassionate via the visual effects.

The scene of the prostitute’s “funeral” symbolically expresses the main motifs of Swallowtail Butterfly. The main devices of the narration in this episode are the visual techniques. The filmmaker uses the full scope of them in order to achieve the effect of the watcher’s presence (cut-ins, close-ups, jump-cuts, cross-cutting, low-key, intense and intent lighting, as well as backlighting). The particular importance has the use of music that underlines the main character’s appearance. Such peculiarity of this scene makes it an outstanding piece of art. For these reasons, I consider this episode to be the most exciting and representable one in the whole movie.


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