“An expressive narrative about feelings of shame, sexuality, and the fear of death. (..) Not (…) extremely polished, but Kobayashi has delivered an exercise in form to show that he is ready to tackle on bigger projects. “
In Japan, the land of the million stories, manga stories can be as strange and unorthodox as the writer want them to be. This narrative freedom creates a space where a multitude of creative approaches to telling a narrative are made possible. One such manga is “Kumoman” by Manabu Nakagawa, which recounts in a quirky drawing style and with an expressive inventiveness the experience and the shame he endured after being struck down by a stroke in a massage parlour when he was about to come.
And now, this unorthodox story makes his way to the silver screen. In the directors seat, first timer Toshimasa Kobayashi, who worked with Nakagawa on the TV drama I Still Don’t Have Any Friends. Is Kobayashi able to translate the quirkiness of the manga narrative and the feelings of shame Nakagawa it so honestly expressed?
29 year-old Manabu Nakagawa (Misoo No) has been a NEET (a young person who is “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) for years. He still lives with his parents, being cared for by his mother as a child, and his reluctance of seeking decent employment only result in seasonal work. One day, his father (Mitsuru Hirata) asks if Manabu is interested in a temporary job to educate a child with autism.
He accepts. After an initial struggle, Manabu learns to communicate with the child, finding a sense of worth in the work he is doing. To celebrate this, he decides to visit the red light district and treat himself to a visit to a massage parlor. Just when he is going to come – receiving fellatio of Yunao (Elisa Yanagi), Manabu suddenly suffers a brain hemorrhage. In the general hospital, his worrying mother (Ryoko Tateishi), not knowing where Manabu suffers his stroke, wants to retrieve his shoes.
Almost coming, Almost dying is a largely auto-biographical slice of life narrative of Manabu Nakagawa’s own experience of suffering a stroke. But instead of keeping it sec and close to the reality, the narrative is staged in a lighthearted way, while offering some unsettling moments – moments of horror and gore – and infusing some mystery, reminiscent to Japanese mystery drama, into the autobiographical mix. The narrative structure of Almost coming, Almost dead might be rather straightforward, but the use of flashbacks makes the structure interesting for the spectator (cine-note 1).
The main theme of this auto-biographical narrative concerns the experience of shame, as related closely to sexuality. This is already present in the very beginning, where the awkwardness and the shame of a man, possibly a virgin, going to a red light district for the very first time is sensibly shown. In this case, the knowledge of the fact that sex in the main purpose creates this awkwardness and causes Manabu to humanize her – asking her a lot of personal questions, while avoiding making eye-contact and looking at her naked body. In the second part of the narrative, the shame is concentrated around the secret of factual place where the stroke happened – the shame of talking about sexuality as such, and the various humiliations Manabu has to endure in the hospital (narra-note 1). The punch line of the narrative and the greatest lesson Manabu has to teach us is summarized by his father: “No man lives without embarrassing himself”.
A second narrative theme is the fear of dying and the fact that death can come at any time. This is visually represented by Kumoman, the RCVS mascot, who, besides making the pain that Manabu experiences sensible for the spectator, is a threatening presence, just like death, that can appear at any moment. Kumoman appears in Manabu’s dreams – where the horror and the gore is present – as well as in his somewhat more silly experience of reality, infusing both narrative places with a certain threat.
Almost coming, almost dead‘s cinematography offers a thoughtful funky blend of various techniques to bring the mix of silliness, horror and gore attractive to the fore and to underline the personal experience of Manabu as such (Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3, Cine-note 4)). The quirky funkiness of the cinematography originates from the unorthodox cinematic transitions – separating the movie into manga chapters as it were, the use of more experimental techniques, e.g. jump-cuts, fast-forward, and a sort of stop-motion, and the jazzy music by the Gentle Forest Jazz Band that accompanies the narrative, injecting it with a certain flow.
Almost coming, Almost Dying might have become a straight-forward uninspiring narrative about suffering a stroke, but instead, by offering a creative mix of silliness, mystery, horror and even some gore, it has become an expressive narrative about feelings of shame, sexuality, and the fear of death. It might not be extremely polished, but Kobayashi has delivered an exercise in form to show that he is ready to tackle on bigger projects.
Cine-note 1: First, the present narrative up until the point that Manabu’s brain damage occurs is framed. Then, before showing the recovery from the brain damage, the narrative shifts to the past to reveal, guided by Manabu as narrative voice, the conditions that made the occurrence of the cerebral accident possible.
Cine-note 2: While a variety of steady shots are used, e.g. close-ups, medium close-ups, mid shots, wide shots, …), the narrative also boasts moving shots. The movement of these shots are, in general, not linked with the movement of characters, but aim to show or follow a given narrative element in a given narrative space. In some cases, these shots underline facial expressions as well(see cine-note 2 for examples).
Cine-note 3: Examples of moving shots: The first example is the fellatio shot. The camera moves over the act of fellatio to a sort of chronometer that goes off. The movement of the woman taking the chronometer happens outside the frame. A second scene is when Manabu picks a mushroom. While the camera follows the picking-motion, it is the mushroom that is underlined and not the movement of Manabu as such.
Cine-note 4: After the first third of the narrative, which is framed with a blend of steady fixed and moving shots, more shots are given a certain shakiness, giving the narrative at times – albeit the silliness is still present – a certain documentary-like quality.
Narra-note 1: The shame of Manabu further enforced by his overprotective and caring mother, who want to retrieve his new shoes.