Director/Screenplay – Go Shibata, Producer – Toshiki Shima, Photography – Takagi Futa, Music – Mori Yudai, Production Design – Kanebayashi Tsuyoshi. Production Company – Shima Films/Kyoto Series.
Motako Ishii (Shinsuke Enoki), Yusuke Noguchi (Terada), Takeshi Yamamoto (Tsutomu), Naozo Hotta (Mr Abe), Sae Shimizu (Sae/Pan-mise), Koji Hata (Kato the Catwalk Doman Seman), Kirana Inori (Kirana Inori)
In Kyoto, Shinsuke is a layabout, living off his girlfriend Sae and desiring to do nothing. He has befriended Abe who demands that he get more money from Sae so that they can go out partying. Meanwhile, Kato the Catwalk Doman Seman, the sorceress that heads the Doman Seman corporation, leads a youth crusade, inspiring teenagers to attack the homeless. At the same time, a mystery group are issuing media statements that promise a repeat of the Righteous Murder Case from sixteen years ago in which a teenager murdered a group of moneylenders. It is discovered that the original Righteous Murder killer has been released from jail. Sae finally throws Shinsuke out of the house. Abe takes him to stay at a flat with the similarly homeless Tsutomu. The two of them start watching a live internet feed, which turns out to be a camera filming the neighbouring apartment of the shy and withdrawn Terada. It is then discovered that Terada is the original Righteous Murder Killer whereupon he is mobbed by the public. Through this, Abe aids the mysterious child Kirana Inori who moves between Kyoto and other worlds, affecting the destiny of people.
Japanese director Go Shibata first came to my attention with the striking Late Bloomer (2004), a controversy-laden film about a serial killer who was confined to a motorised wheelchair. Shibata next went onto make the non-genre Coming of Age drama Punch the Blue Sky (2008), which does not appear to have been widely seen. Doman Seman was Go Shibata’s third film. His subsequent work has all been in documentaries.
Doman Seman emerged to wildly polarised audiences. So much so that Go Shibata apparently went away after the film’s premiere and re-edited everything from scratch, eliminating some six minutes of material from the original 130-minute version. Even in re-edited form, Doman Seman still left audiences baffled. Various fantastic/Asian film festival organisers promoted the film with phrases such as ‘trippy’, ‘psychedelic’, ‘reality bending’ and ‘a cult film’. Maybe. About half-an-hour into Doman Seman (usually the time by which one has more than worked such things out), I was still scratching my head trying to work out what the film was about. I must confess that after 124 minutes I was no clearer.
The film opens with an interesting piece of mythic scene setting where title cards tell the story of the sorcerer Abeno Seimei and his private pocket spirits and how his wife insisted that he move them out of the house, created a shrine for them near the Horiwara Nakatchiuri bridge. This seems a great basis for a fantasy film – you could easily imagine Go Shibata going on to build it out into something akin to Shinya Tsukamoto’s Hiruko the Goblin (1990) or another Battle League Horumo (2009). (Abeno Seimei was in fact a real historical figure, an astrologer and magician who lived in Kyoto in the 10th Century). However, in the first of the film’s head-scratching doglegs, after devoting some ten title cards to telling this story, the film then informs us that its story concerns an entirely different bridge altogether.
Things get even more puzzling as the film kicks in. We get a series of montage scenes with children wandering the backstreets of the city putting up strange mobiles made up of plastic soda bottles. There are various reports on tv about the Righteous Murder killings and the attacks on the homeless but the announcers seem to be having to drag video pop-ups down into camera or are wrestling with Hello Kitty-type graphic displays that are trying to bump them out of the way. There is an evil corporation headed by Kato the Catwalk Doman Seman (Koji Hata), a sorceress whose face looks over a hundred years old but has the hands of a twenty year old and cruises the city in a hearse with a decorated wooden cover, inspiring youth to attack the homeless. The scenes with the organised attacks on the homeless and concerning the corporation seem to be pushing the film into the realm of satire and black comedy – only this never transpires, Go Shibata makes a few digs at the Recession but his point is never too clear and thereafter his interest in doing so seems to trickle off.
This is interwoven with the drama of long-haired slacker Motako Ishii who seems to mooch off his girlfriend (the alarmingly weird Sae Shimizu) and is eventually kicked out by her – these are the most straightforward sections of the film – and is then taken by the mysterious Abe to a flat where he and another homeless guy (Takeshi Yamamoto) who is fond of eating hallucinogenic wild mushrooms sit watching a live feed from an apartment front door. This turns out to be the home of Terada, who spends much time sitting in a cafe before it is gradually revealed he is the killer from sixteen years before who appears to be being forced to repeat his actions all over again by Kato the Catwalk Doman Seman (although this is not easy to tell). These two character strands are the closest that Doman Seman has to a plot – they play out the most prominently, although equally they have no evident dramatic arc and drag on without any clear point or direction.
All of this is punctuated with random and incomprehensible surrealistic touches. Motako Ishii has a dream of attacking someone, ripping the top of their head off, which then explodes in a massive jet of what looks like milk, before this is revealed to be something he is imagining during the midst of sex with Sae Shimizu. Various other head rippings and milky explosions occur throughout. (The crude Freudian connotations of these head explosions is more than made clear with characters at later points yelling “I’m coming”).
For some reason, Terada is watched and then pursued by people who all have black strips covering their eyes. Abe and the little girl (Kirana Inori) turn up, causing the glowing pentacle shaped sigil of Abeno Seimei to appear and cause people that enter it to vanish. Motako Ishii and Takeshi Yamamoto run and leap through the streets in their bathrobes and underwear and engage in some of the lamest fight sequences ever directed. Masakiyo Sumida, the wheelchair ridden serial killer from Late Bloomer, turns up as mentor to Terada before revealing he has been paid by the families of the people Terada murdered to kill him and shows him a comic-book he has drawn about it, leaving the end panel blank. The little girl turns up as a giant, striding Godzilla-like through a not very convincing model set of the city at one point, while causing the entire city and everything around her to start glowing. Children play a game where they call the name of a farting monk and then freeze in position, while several times throughout the farting monk himself falls out of the sky and stumbles about.
Towards the end, the film appears to do something akin to the blue box scenes in Mulholland Dr. (2001) and rewinds the narrative to briefly tell events with different characters playing out a handful of scenes. I really don’t understand anything about what this film was about. I cannot say with any certainty that Go Shibata did either.