This is the first of our promised dispatches from the New York Asian Film Festival, and it’s a doozy (Good lord, when did such words creep into our vocabulary?). Securing "Operetta Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon)" was a real triumph for NYAFF — Seijun Suzuki pioneered the sort of visually brilliant, wondrously bizarre films the festival was created to showcase. He’s now 82, and apparently sometimes requires the use of an oxygen tank, but age has hardly tempered his vision — "Princess Raccoon" is joyously strange, goofy, stylized, and very much a Seijun Suzuki film.
Zhang Ziyi plays the princess in question, ruling over the tanuki in the tanuki castle in the tanuki forest. The fact that she speaks Mandarin for most of the film is explained away fairly effortlessly — she came to Japan from China. Why? Oh, humans can never understand why tanukis do what they do. The language barrier doesn’t really put a crimp in her eventual romance with the human prince Amechiyo (Odagiri Jo, rivaling Zhang in prettiness), because love transcends all languages. They do have plenty of other problems to deal with, like Amechiyo’s father, who, in true (if gender-reversed) fairy-tale fashion, is trying to kill Amechiyo because his blossoming good looks threaten to make him, rather than his father, the fairest of them all. Then there’s the Tanuki-hime’s obligations to her people, who live in jolly, musical bliss away from the humans who try to trick them and/or make them into soup. This is before we get into the bizarre Catholicism, the random Italian courtiers hanging about, the Frog of Paradise, a rock, paper, scissors battle, and a digital appearance from an enka singer.
Strangest of all, as always, is Suzuki’s distinct visual style. His love of color seeps richly into every shot, many of which play out against a green screened-in backdrop of a traditional painting or foil paper. Others are set on what is clearly a stage, or an artificial forest with a painted background, and in the closing scene, a minor character walks out of one of the few realistic(ish) locations directly onto a stage, where she deliver a final monologue. It is, after all, an operetta. Suzuki further departs from any sense of visual continuity with what we’d hesitate to call jump cuts (leap cuts? non sequitur cuts?) which pull characters wildly from one location to another (though really, we don’t know how else they get from the obviously outdoor field of flower that supposedly borders on the clearly indoor set of the tanuki forest).
Delirious, enjoyable fun, though certainly not for everyone. Festival head Grady Hendrix even pointed the doors out in the back as he introduced the film, should anyone feel the need to walk out.