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Funky Forest (2011)
Funky Forest (2011)

Two of Japan’s weirdest comedies have arrived in the UK

The early 00s was a vibrant time for weird and wacky Japanese cinema – and Funky Forest and The Warped Forest are no exception

Try and imagine Monty Python, Airplane and William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch all rolled into one. You’re still some way off from comprehending the madness of Funky Forest and The Warped Forest – two of the most absurd cult comedies to emerge out of Japan in the 21st century.

Like a melting pot of surreal sci-fi, unlikely melodrama, musical set-pieces and wacky animation, these anthology works shuffle a pantheon of episodic sketches together like a pack of novelty playing cards, or a zany variety show from another dimension. It’s a “jack-in-the-box” of erotic, grotesque and comical stories, Katsuhito Ishii (one of the three directors of Funky Forest) tells Dazed via email; spring-loaded and ready to pop – while also boasting a resplendent cast plucked from all across Japan’s vibrant cultural spectrum of the early 00s.

Both features receive a long-overdue home media release in the west this month via tastemaker labels Third Window Films and Error 4444, and are thus freshly poised to re-stake their claims as midnight movies par excellence, to be feasted upon by curious weirdos and nocturnal stoners alike. Making sense of either of them is moot – but as Dazed discovers, logic doesn’t count when descending down the rabbit hole.

Funky Forest is a jarring mesh of stand-up comedy routines, would-be romances, dance battles and bold non-sequiturs separated by jarring jump cuts and dramatic title sequences; a structure that likens the 21-part anthology’s format to an eccentric DJ set or mixtape. Director Ishii, who helmed the film alongside school friends and fellow commercial and animation directors Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, once described it as “a movie of one hundred gags” – which isn’t far off the mark. Indeed, as Ishii explains to Dazed, the initial project was intended as a super-sized version of Grasshoppa!, a monthly DVD magazine they used to make – it’s a heritage that bears parallels with that of MTV comedy sensation Jackass

Recurring story strands in Funky Forest range from the beguiling to the bizarre. Take “Guitar Brother” – about three brothers whose unluckiness in love inspires one to pen melodramatic guitar songs as an attempt to rectify his misfortunes. “Will chicks dig it?” the eponymous Guitar Brother (Tadanobu Asano) asks his youngest brother – a rotund white child who can’t really speak Japanese. “Babbling Hot Springs Vixens”, meanwhile, follows the exploits of a group of gossiping bathhouse ladies, while “Home Room” captures a series of presentations in a class of mismatched students. 

In between these, the film is lined with gross-out physical effects depicting strange ailments, nonsensical rituals and bizarre alien creatures that can be played like musical instruments (picture HR Giger’s Alien xenomorph, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and the Moomins morphed into a single nightmarish creation). Dream sequences, meanwhile, take place in lush rainforests and on idyllic beaches sporting giant subwoofers. What’s not to love??

“What I wanted to achieve was that the people who watched it would become confused,” director Miki said of the original Funky Forest, in an interview included on the films’ 2022 home media release. Apparently, his mission wasn’t quite accomplished at the first time of asking – so the filmmaker went solo six years later to take the reigns for the film’s lesser-seen quasi-sequel. 

The Warped Forest is no less perplexing than the original. Taking place in a village at the edge of a wooded forest, above which a giant triangular UFO looms menacingly, the film offers up stories of vanishing tea-sets, sexually-provocative fruit, nipple guitars and, of course, the “Pinkie Pankie monster” – which a young girl stalks in a meadow with a penis-launching firearm. Elsewhere, a baker ponders whether his “Lovey-Dovie’s Smiley Rolls” are in need of a makeover, while other local residents struggle to maintain harmony alongside a civilisation of smurf-sized mini-persons. It’s very silly – but arguably even more fun than the original.

Despite garnering cult followings for the aforementioned films, director Ishii is probably best known in the West for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill  he was one of the main animators for the violent anime sequence in the first film. The most interesting presence in Funky Forest, though, is another prominent figure from the world of anime.

Hideaki Anno is best known in real life as the creator of the wildly popular Neon Genesis Evangelion animated sci-fi franchise, and for serving as a key animator on the Studio Ghibli films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Grave of the Fireflies. The animator and director, who recently expressed his desire to remake the former Hayao Miyazaki work as a live-action film, was also behind the 2016 smash hit live-action kaiju reboot Shin Godzilla, which will soon form the basis of a new, MCU-style ‘Shin Japan Heroes Universe’, including icons from franchises such as Ultraman, Kamen Rider and Evangelion itself. That’s a big deal.

In a making-of feature that accompanies Funky Forest, Anno would claim that he never actually received his script for the film – and so had no idea what role he was supposed to be playing until he was given his shooting schedule. He’s hilarious in the role of a lackadaisical animator being hassled to complete storyboards by an insistent film producer (Asano) – who later reveals that the film he is working on is being directed by a dog.

Funky Forest was something the creators felt had never been done before – and they had hoped it would become a format that other filmmakers would pounce upon. “In reality, no other like-minded creators emerged,” Ishii explains via email, “so the [project] remained as one-of-a-kind in Japan… the world wasn’t ready.” He expresses hope that a platform like Netflix might provide a home for such projects in the future – but rues that “it won’t be possible with the current Japanese staff” (with a “lol” thrown in for good measure).

Nonetheless, as emphasised by the Fantasia Festival, who described The Warped Forest as an essential work in the millennial new wave of radical, hallucinogenic Japanese comedies” – and one of the strangest cinematic brews of the era, the early 00s was a vibrant time for weird and wacky Japanese cinema.