On the back of the DVD packaging for Screwed, Teruo Ishii’s late-period manga adaptation, it says in big block letters: “The ultimate Japanese cult film!” So just how “ultimate” is Screwed? For a film by a man in his late 70s, it’s pretty raunchy. Right from the start, it’s a strange ride. Under the titles we get a beach full of naked women, upside-down crab-walking men, and some kind of bloated red person-thing. It turns out that this is all in the mind of Tsube (Tadanobu Asano), a failed manga artist whose cartoons are apparently too weird for paying customers. Tsube’s financial failure has led to separation from his wife. They eventually get back together, but it turns out she’s pregnant, and not by Tsube. This revelation begins Tsube wandering, searching possibly for peace of mind, or maybe just someone like him.
Tsube’s motivations are never made clear, Ishii keeping the narrative purposefully vague. In this, the film mirrors the manga on which it was based, Yoshiharu Tsuge’s groundbreaking Neji-shiki (excerpts are included on a .pdf with the DVD). In many ways, the film is a direct homage to the manga, with many shots appearing exactly as they were originally drawn. Manga lends itself naturally to this odd, episodic style but it’s much more difficult to pull off in film. Without a little more of Tsube’s character to hold on to, we’re left with a series of vignettes that, while entertaining, fail to add up to much.
Ishii spent most of the ’70s as an exploitation director, and it shows. The man obviously loves women, and Screwed has no shortage of gorgeous, topless ladies. Tsube wanders from one female encounter to the next, always distant and rarely getting physically involved. Even a sexual encounter with the hostess of a restaurant where he stays in a seaside town turns out to be entirely in his mind. Fantasy eventually takes over, with Screwed culminating in an extended hallucination as the result of a jellyfish sting. Tsube wanders through a town, looking for a doctor. He gets on a train conducted by a kitsune (a fox), meets his mother at a candy factory, and is eventually operated on by a doctor with a wrench during a sexual experience. The film seems to have been driving towards this climax (no pun intended), yet the cheapness of the look of the hallucination—particularly the model train—prevents it from having as powerful an effect as it deserves.
What really holds Screwed together is Asano Tadanobu, who is endlessly watchable. His understated performance provides a solid counterpoint to the often confused (and confusing) narrative. Had Tsube been played by someone else, Screwed would not have been as watchable.
So, maybe it’s not so “ultimate,” but it’s still a fun, albeit odd, piece of raunch.