A Forest for the Sleaze

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Remember the Japanese freak show that was “Lost in Translation”? Few people took Sofia Coppola to task for such a one-dimensional portrayal of a culture (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in fact, gave her an award for it). And frankly, Ms. Coppola’s depiction seems almost generous when compared with some of the crazy Japanese cultural phenomena we’ve been exposed to recently, notably Food Network’s “Iron Chef,” Spike TV’s “MXC,” the underwear-clad boy-band parody Yatta performing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and let’s not forget “Pokémon.” Here in America, Japanese weirdness seems to represent the exotic, mythical Orient’s evolution from crouching, flying, gravity-defying past to hyperkinetic, epileptic future. It’s foreign and it’s fascinating.

The 2005 film “Funky Forest: The First Contact,” which begins a one-week engagement Friday at the ImaginAsian Theater, is the latest import from the land of the rising sun that resists easy description or synopsis. While the film might make sense within its own societal context, it’s impossible to place anywhere in the American cultural landscape. Using the television sketch comedy show format as a framing device, “Funky Forest” is a series of bizarre non sequiturs interconnected by recurring characters: Imagine a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Saturday Night Live” or “MADtv,” directed by Michel Gondry. No, make that Matthew Barney. No, make that David Cronenberg.

Various faux skits comprise this faux TV show: “Unpopular-with-Women Brothers” (or “Guitar Brother,” according to the film’s English title card) features the trio of Tadanobu Asano, Susumu Terajima (permanent sidekick to Takeshi Kitano), and Andrew Alfieri as brothers who obviously look nothing alike.

The “Babbling Hot Spring Vixens” are three giggling ingénue types who — aside from babbling — pillow-fight in slow motion, bathe to soft-core music, and unwittingly unleash their charms on a hapless guest (also played by Mr. Terajima) staying at the same resort.

“Home Room!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” stars Mr. Terajima yet again, this time playing teacher to a jarringly cross-generational class. And “Notti & Takefumi” is a musical that revolves around the tentative relationship between an English teacher and his former student, apparently from the same school where “Home Room!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is set. The Barney-Cronenberg comparisons start to kick in as extraterrestrial creatures dripping with Vaseline swarm the school. Oh, there’s also an animated segment supposedly directed by a dog named Pero.

The comedy in “Funky Forest” ranges from the very subtle to the very juvenile. There’s the bespectacled, stone-faced class president (Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar nominee for “Babel”) giving a hilarious presentation on greetings, with examples from “Good morning” to “What’s up?” to “Are you hitting on me?” to “I can’t help myself. I don’t know if you love me or not.” The idea of three interracial brothers, or the sight of a bratty, obese Caucasian speaking semi-fluent Japanese, might also be amusing to some. Then there’s the crass and grotesque material, such as a student attempting to pacify an alien creature by gently stroking one of its tentacles.

Despite the film’s TV sketch comedy-show framework, half of it defies humor. There are elaborate dream sequences, musical interludes, and synchronized choreography, all of which seem somewhat pointless and daunting given the film’s 150-minute running time. It’s impossible to tell whether these vignettes are parodies or something else entirely. Without the necessary referential points, “Funky Forest” is indeed lost in translation.

Through March 13 (239 E. 59th St., between Second and Third avenues, 212-371-6682).

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