After 17 years of making experimental short movies like Penis (2001), Aramaki (2009), and Octopus (2015), Isamu Hirayabashi has finally tries his hand at creating a full-length feature film. Ignoring the usual conventions of cinematic structure, he sets out on a idiosyncratic and experimental exploration of what being alive means.
Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) and Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), two childhood friends, work together at the front desk of a capsule hotel. While Nitobe is focused on philosophizing about life and crustaceans, Sakamoto is fixated on committing suicide.
The capsule hotel is a place of coming and going. Not only does the capsule hotel attracts many Japanese people, like the student researching Daphnia, come to spend the night in these rectangular boxes, they are also a retreat for foreigners, like the Finnish mother. Their lives, at no point, intersect, but their subjective existence is, nevertheless, marked by the same dimensions of language, sexuality, and death.
From the very first moment of Shell and Joint – i.e. the temporally long opening shot – the passing of time is emphasized. While the passing of time is not the main theme the narrative deals with, this impressive shot introduces the passing of time as the backdrop for everything that subsequently will play out within subjects and between subjects. Every monologue, every conversation is in some way or another related to the passing of time. Not only when the conversation topic concerns evolution (i.e. the change of species over time), the reality of death (i.e. over time you’ll die), but also when the conversations turn around sexuality (e.g. sexual reproduction) and sexual enjoyment.
The main narrative axis of Shell and Joint is only introduced when Sakamoto and Nitobe talk about death and the fear of dying: the relation between existence (i.e. being alive) and non-existence (i.e. being death). In their conversation, Sakamoto underlines her ambivalence towards being alive and her refusal to prove her existence. Her multiple suicides attempts underline this ambivalence, but, instead of taking subjective responsibility for these acts, she blames it on bacteria that are able to control one’s mind. While it is not clear if this bacteria-theory is a subtle delusion that structures her life, this theory is nevertheless evident that her ‘theory’ echoes the contemporary tendency to reduce mental problems to being mere biological processes of illness (Narra-note 1).
That the relation between existence and non-existence, as made possible by the passing of time, forms the main axis of Shell And Joint is sensible in every scene. When Machiyama (-) masturbates and puts his semen under the microscope, when two men in the sauna discuss the absurd story of a girl who got pregnant without sex or when Nitobe philosophizes about the sexuality of worms and tadpole shrimps, each scene brings the relation between existence and non-existence into play. But these scenes – albeit in a quirky way – add another thematic element to the narrative: the aspect of human sexuality and the sexual relationship. The difference between existence and non-existence, as function of the passing of time, is on another level also function of sexuality – i.e. the act of copulating (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3). The aspect of marriage and re-marriage, which is often referred to in Shell and Joint, also fits within the theme of human sexuality and the theme of the sexual relationship. The explanation Miyama (-), a lab-assistant set to marry her professor (-), gives about her theory about men, that they are caterpillars that never stop molting, is nothing but a funny evocation of the fact that the sexual relationship between men and women is ever problematic and always marked by misunderstanding. And this is not the only scene that evokes the sexual relationship between men and women as ever problematic. It is a reoccurring aspect in conversations that underlines that no human being can exist without having to face the problem between the sexes.
Another dimension, a fundamental one, is introduced by the married couple in the woods. When the man, a former Yakuza, asks his wife if she’s going to remarry after he is dead, he not only introduces the question of love but also evokes the fact that human existence and non-existence functions on two different planes, a symbolic and a real one. His question, is essence, asks how she will treat his symbolic existence once he has become physically non-existent.
Hirabayashi’s insistence on existence and non-existence, the passing of time, the problematic sexual relationship, and various other things, like shitting, committing suicide, or marrying, that humans do, allows us the reformulate what Shell and Joint is truly about: the cycle of life. The cycle of human life not only as a cycle of symbolic existence (i.e. our existence as subject in language before and after death) and symbolic non-existence (i.e. being forgotten), but also of real existence (i.e. the human body as being driven by sexual enjoyment) and real non-existence (i.e. death, bodily tension reduced to zero) (Narra-note 4).
But there is also another cycle of life in play in Hirabayashi’s narrative – one that is constantly referred to: the cycle of life of animals and especially of those that are a nuisance to humans. It is a cycle of animal life that is primarily interlinked with the cycle of human beings by way of violence, due to the fact that human beings, whenever they can, turn the real existence (i.e. their real presence) of these animals into a state of non-existence and non-presence. But even though these cycles are interlinked, they remain radically separated due to one element: humans speak. The truth of Hirabayashi’s narrative, when all is said and done, is nothing other than the fact that speech makes the temporal existence of the speaking-being so complex and the natural establishment of a sexual relation between men and women impossible (Narra-note 5).
What’s special about Shell and Joint is the fact that the narrative is not told in a conventional way. In truth, Hirayabashi’s narrative is a concatenation of separate slice-of-life sequences. What binds the sequences is the question concerning life and death the director wants to answer within the scope of his narrative. Every sequence is thus an element – a visual signifier or a spoken signifier – of the answer the director is in the process of formulating. Shell and Joint thus does not aim to offer a narrative, but a subjective answer, to be read at the level of the signifier, to a philosophical question.
This non-conventional way of narration and the long run-time of Shell and Joint may be off-putting for some, but those who give Shell and Joint an honest chance are in for a concatenation of strong imagery and powerful sequences (Narra-note 6, Psycho-note 1). For the truly powerful scenes, one does need to wait until the second half of the narrative. This is partially due to the fact that these scenes, each approaching existence, sexuality, and non-existence in a different way, offer a deeper exploration of the themes Shell and Joint is concerned with. It would thus not be wrong to state that the first half of the narrative establishes the themes while the second half further elaborates them.
The cinematography of Shell and Joint is minimalistic. This minimalism is not only due to the static framing or the temporal length of shots, but also due to the fact that the camera, at every moment, remains distant/aloof. There are, in other words, no close-ups of characters in the cinematographical composition of Shell and Joint. Hirayabashi’s composition is, despite some exceptions, just a concatenation of static wide-shots and extreme wide-shots (Cine-note 1). It is due to the static nature of the cinematographical composition that Hirayabashi is able to emphasize the signifier as such. It is only due to cinematographical emphasis on the signifier, i.e. on words expressed in monologues or exchanged in conversations as well as on images acting as signifiers, that Shell and Joint gains its thematic unity and is able to evoke Hirayabashi’s personal answer (Narra-note 7).
Shell and Joint’s composition is brightened up by great musical accompaniment, courtesy of Takashi Watanabe. The way music is integrated in the unfolding of the ‘narrative’ reveals Hirayabashi as a director with a clear vision. Sound is not only used to announce the impeding change between narrative spaces (e.g. from the lobby of the capsule hotel to the laboratory to the sauna), but also used , for instance, to evoke in a lighthearted way the presence of mosquitoes in the narrative space. The lightheartedness of this play with music resides in the fact that the sounds underlining the presence of the mosquitos promptly disappear once a human hand has turned the mosquito’s annoying presence into a dead presence (sound-note 1).
Shell And Joint is a true showcase of Hirabayashi’s talent as director and screenwriter and proof that he has a clear artistic vision. Full of visually enticing imagery and strong scenes, Hirabayashi offers a truly compelling exploration of what human existence and non-existence is. By concatenating a multitude of slice-of-life sequences – some dead-serious, some hilarious, and some touching, Hirabayashi succeeds in showing the spectator that within our physical existence language problematizes the way we sexually relate with the other sex, but also enables our existence to persist beyond our death.
Narra-note 1: Besides avoiding the subjective component in the act of suicide, Sakamoto’s theory also avoids the social component, i.e. the fact that the structure of society itself has a role in making people mentally ill or driving them to commit suicide.
Narra-note 2: While the passing of time introduces the start of life as well as the end of life, the act of copulation, as grasped within the passing of time, can only turn non-existence into existence.
Narra-note 3: Another theme that is subtly touched upon is the male fear of becoming sexually irrelevant for women, a fear of being unnecessary for reproduction and thus the creation of new life.
Narra-note 4: The notion of symbolic existence after being dead (real non-existence) is most clearly explored in the sequence where a daughter discusses the second death-anniversary of her adulterous father with her mother.
Narra-note 5: This revelation is most clearly illustrated in the juxtaposition of the scene where three insect-puppets discuss the importance of the signifier (see narra-note 6) and the scene where two humans illustrate the sexuality of ‘insects’.
Narra-note 6: The most powerful sequences are, in our opinion, the third and fourth conversation between Sakamoto and Nitobe, the sequence in the sauna where a man talks about being a cicada, the conversation between two sisters about the elder sister’s boyfriends and the fertility treatment the youngest underwent.
Psycho-note 1: Despite Sakamoto saying that her fear of cockroaches is not a phobia, there is no other way than to view her fear as a phobic symptom. It is a phobic symptom that, as is made clear in the narrative, disrupts her body and thus endangers the imaginary unity of the body.
Narra-note 7: The importance of the signifier is underlined in the conversations between the cockroach, the fly, and the mite.
Notice that, in the first conversation, words are introduced as opposite to life. How can we understand this? We can only understand this by referring to the fact that existence is not only real but also symbolic. While the plane of real existence, i.e. the body, is of course always in play, a human being leads his life, first and foremost on the symbolic plane. Therefore, it is not surprising that the mite finds the world of words more important that the world of bodies.
The second conversation underlines the fact that it is the signifier that enables one’s symbolic existence persist after death, the real non-existence. The fact that the signifier is uttered within a social network allows the dream of the cockroach and thus the cockroach as such live on in the minds of the fly and the mite.
Cine-note 1: In some cases, the movement of characters temporarily turns wide-shots into medium shots.
Sound-note 1: In Nitobe’s case, we, as spectator, are also given access to his philosophizing via the externalization of his inner monologue. It is because his inner-monologue gets externalized that it can become ‘narrative’ for the spectator, that it can become a subtle exploration of the him as subject.