On the surface, Vise has an intriguing premise that is filled with horrific potential.
The Girl (Julian Koike) is an aspiring Toyko model who is obsessed with the size of her face. She keeps getting passed over for jobs by other girls who have had cosmetic surgery, though, and her perceived failure is undermining her sanity. Her boyfriend (Naoto Mita) barely notices, but The Girl is regularly catcalled by random strangers and co-workers who yell about her “big face”.
The irony, of course, is that The Girl doesn’t have a big face at all. Vise, written by Nagano and directed by Yasuhiko Shimizu, is a satire about the beauty industry and, by extension, society’s obsession with impossible beauty standards and their damaging mental effects. The Girl is repeatedly told that she’s good looking and that she needs to find and accept her inner beauty, but she can’t process the words, much less accept them.
One day she follows the signs to the Manriki Beauty Clinic, which offers facelifts and bone readjustment procedures. Initially, she refrains from going inside, but after a failed audition and a dinner date with two other models (Yumeko Catharine, Risako) that reveals the extreme surgeries they’ve undergone, The Girl opts to address her perceived deficiencies.
Up to this point, Nagano’s script has indulged in a few less than grounded flights of fancy, such as a romanticized encounter with Doctor Manriki (Saitoh Takumi) in a restaurant where he lovingly squishes The Girl’s face together while they’re bathed in neon purple light. When she goes in for her consultation, however, Vise takes a turn.
After a consultation with Manriki, who appears sympathetic, The Girl is left in the hands of his deranged effete receptionist (Nagano) and another blind patient (Nobuaki Kaneko). The non-invasive cosmetic surgery involves the titular vise: the girl is laid on a table and her head is placed in a contraption with a crank that Manriki and his receptionist squeeze while she screams for help. The sequence is bloody and uncomfortable, but also tinged with comedy as The Girl’s boyfriend (on his own photoshoot) poses with an erection he acquires while listening to her pleas on his phone.
If this doesn’t inspire either shock or laughter, Vise is almost certainly not for you. From here the film abandons any pretense of horror in favour of surreal comedy. Not only does The Girl’s face turn out looking ridiculous, but she also becomes 1) an internet meme, 2) a figure of public mockery and 3) a living example of Manriki’s sham medical practice. It should be noted that the prosthetics used on Koike are not convincing, though in some ways she does resemble a few female celebrities who have gone under the knife a few more times than is advisable.
Following her surgery, The Girl becomes obsessed with Manriki, mistakenly believing that they are dating and berating him for avoiding her. After a lengthy sequence in a restaurant that initially appears to be setting up the next act, Vise then unexpectedly adopts a kind of anthology format, abandoning The Girl’s storyline entirely to follow Manriki as he and the vise go on the lam for a series of episodic adventures with increasingly unusual characters.
The first – and most memorable – of these is a hot young con artist (SWAY) and his 50-year-old “hag” girlfriend (Misuzu Kanno) who attempt to execute a honeypot scam on him. The results do not go as planned, and result in the film’s greatest violent set piece.
From here Vise spirals further and further into bizarre imagery and non-sensical plot developments (at one point a giant mid-coitus naked couple advises a group of vigilantes on a course of action). Eventually, this leads to a denouement wherein the good Doctor is caught and made to pay for his crimes at the hands of half of the cast, the majority of whom are now playing their second, or even third, new character. It’s all a bit obtuse and confusing, particularly as the film chugs along, abandoning any semblance of narrative coherence in favor of symbolism and visual spectacle.
The result is a film that isn’t wholly successful and is guaranteed to test the patience of anyone anticipating a straightforward story. For those willing to go on a bizarre experiment, however, there is a certain delight to be found in surrendering to the film’s hallucinatory experience. Truly, Vise is a trip.