“Swallowtail Butterfly”: Tokyo’s Multicultural Marvel

Japan has always been a popular destination for tourists as much as for immigrants. While the former come for exotic locations and culture, the latter hope to earn a quick yen. Shunji Iwai’sSwallowtail Butterfly is a cosmopolitan fairytale about Tokyo and its multiculturality. Starting the film with black-and-white aerial shots of Tokyo, Iwai sets the scene and prepares the viewer for an abstract rendition on the subject of this great city and the fate people find there. On the one hand, there is a stereotype that Japan is a very “closed” country that keeps its traditions from foreign influences; on the other hand, the country is clearly affected by immigration rates and other cultures. In contrast to Asian closeness, Swallowtail Butterfly shows a multinational and multicultural city thriving with different ethnic groups and languages, ultimately making the protagonist a symbol of today’s Japan.

Swallowtail Butterfly is Shunji Iwai’s film about an orphan, a nameless girl who lives in the future Tokyo. She is of unknown Asian origin and later gets a name Ageha, which means “swallowtail butterfly.” The exact time in the future is unspecified, but the film depicts Japan as a developed and powerful country with a strong currency. Showing very different characters speaking various languages and the protagonist who does not know her exact origin, the director metaphorically speaks about contemporary Japan. It is not clear where the girl comes from, which language is her mother tongue, and who her parents are. All these factors imply that the protagonist functions as a metaphor for Japan itself: “the self-portrait of a Japan that remains forever undetermined, living free in a strangely cosmopolitan world absent either a tradition that professes cultural nationalism or the myth of a homogeneous race” (Inuhiko and Gerow 83).


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The uneasiness and confusion of the characters’ lives are reflected in the cinematographic techniques used throughout the film. Swallowtail Butterfly is known for “jump-cut editing, freeze-frames, hand-held camera” (Cazdyn 161). It gives the film a modern edge and aligns it with documentary sometimes. These cinematographic methods are especially suitable to show disorientation and confusion of somebody and a complex nature of some phenomenon.

In the scene of walking through the Opium Street, Ageha and her friend are heading to an acupuncture doctor who also does tattoos. Opium Street is a horrific place packed with immigrants and scums. The scene presents a variety of shots. It starts with a medium shot taken from behind a mesh fence to establish the location and signal that the protagonists are observed by many eyes. The camera shows Ahega and her friend from all sides, making a 360 degrees turn. They look around and stare at all the people sitting closely to each other and lying on the ground, but the high-angle shots do not imply condescending or humiliating quality. They are counterbalanced by low-angle shots revealing caution on the faces of Ahega and her friend. The orbiting of the camera aims at taking in all aspects of immigrants’ lives. Here is a man smoking opium; here is a man skinning a rabbit; there are smoking old ladies and children sleeping on the cardboards; in another shot Ahega and her friend come across a sleeping man who turns out to be dead. In another low-angle shot, several tiers of buildings are shown tightly packed with people who look and jeer at Ageha and her friend. Hand-held camera and jump-cut editing improve documentalistic quality of the scene.

In the Opium Street scene, the lightening and musical soundtrack with the hum of voices and urban sound emphasize the atmosphere of the place. The light is muted. Even though Ageha and her friend walk down the street, it is as dark as in a cellar with occasional spots of light from lamps and open windows. It makes the place unnerving. Sudden yells or shill sounds add a scary quality to the scene. The soundtrack is disquieting rather than neutral. Both Japanese and Chinese are heard. People speak a mixture of languages.

The kaleidoscope of shots and the eerie soundtrack with shriek noises draw attention to the issues of immigration and illegal workers. Cazdyn writes, “These gratuitous aesthetic gestures, together with a cloying soundtrack, make it difficult to think through … the issues of foreign labor and the effects of Japan’s bubble economy” (161). On the contrary, the Opium Street scene seems screaming about “the issues of foreign labor” and effectively showing its glaring problems such as illegal status, housing, unsanitary conditions and cheap exploitation.

Swallowtail Butterfly is distinguished by the beauty of cinematographic methods. The scene at the doctor’s doing a tattoo is one of the most beautiful scenes of the film. Done in sepia coloring, the doctor’s office is dimly lit with the sidelight coming from the open window. The camera work keeps a 180 degree rule. Ageha and the doctor are shown in the medium shot to establish the location. With only his outline visible, the doctor is sitting facing the viewer. The light coming from behind his back softens the scene and enhances the beauty of Ageha and her body. She is lying undressed on the couch in front of the doctor. During their conversation the camera changes its position and often shows Ageha from above. The doctor is applying ink on Ageha’s chest and asking her about her first recollection of a butterfly. The way she remembers her childhood is visually compared to the flight of a butterfly. The camera work is spastic and uneven, repeating the jerky fluttering of the butterfly wings.

Next come low-angle shots that imitate the way a child looks up. Ageha remembers herself as she was locked up in the bathroom to play with her toys while the mum was with her boyfriend in the only room. The little Ageha wants to get the butterfly that is sitting high up on the wall. The side-on view of the butterfly is copied in the side-on image of Ageha lying on the couch with the doctor bending over her and making a tattoo. Additionally, there is a full-on shot of the spread out wings of the butterfly when it can be observed in all its glory. It is mirrored in the top view shot of Ageha lying barechested in all her beauty. Low-angle and high-angle shots alternate to show the interplay between the child and the butterfly who look at each other.

Then the spinning camera work and jump-cut editing increase their speed and mirror the efforts Ageha makes to recall this particular scene with the butterfly from her childhood. Interjecting the images of the butterfly and the child playing in the mud on the bathroom floor with aerial shots of Ageha’s mother lying in bed with a man, the viewer gets a better idea of Ageha’s life circumstances. When the child abruptly shuts the window jamming the butterfly, it echoes as a metaphor of Ageha’s crumpled life as she has no relatives and no family. Broken butterfly wings drop on the child’s chest, and in the next shot Ageha is at the acupuncturist’s couch with an almost finished butterfly tattoo.

Thanks to aesthetic qualities, the film earns the love of its viewers for the melting pot it exhibits. Showing different characters that live in the chaotic Tokyo, Swallowtail Butterfly carefully mixes nostalgia for the city Tokyo used to be or some idyllic place people carry in their hearts, and the fairy tale about what it should be in the time of capitalism and multiculturalism. Through the use of cinematographic techniques the viewer recognizes the modernity and its dazzling effect on people.

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