It was by mere chance, at the screening of Koji Segawa’s Swaying Mariko (2017) that we saw the trailer of Takahiro Sakata’s Kuma Elohim. Captivated by its strangeness and mysteriousness, the desire to watch this narrative was immediately awakened in us. And now, the time has finally come.
[See also my article Friends of Japanese Cinema for a richer exploration of Segawa’s screening.]
Year 2117. On a planet overseen by a religious group, life and death are strictly controlled. Eight years ago, Ayamu (Furuya Konosuke) and Ema (Murakami Yukino) were coupled and married under the birth decline prevention program in order to conceive a child. But, as of now, Ema has never succeeded in becoming pregnant. Due to Ema’s inability to serve her purpose, she will, soon, be replaced by another woman. Ayumu, for that matter, becomes convinced the reason of their failure lies with him.
Kuma Elohim is an intriguing and evocative sci-fi narrative. At first, it might be difficult for the spectator to fully comprehend what is going on, difficult to associate the various signifiers together into a complete grasp of the context of Ayumu and Ema’s narrative, but as the narrative goes on a main narrative thread, a central theme that is in process of being elaborated, is laid bare. Even so, Kuma Elohim still leaves a lot of aspects of its context to the spectator’s interpretation.
The narrative touches upon themes of life and death, the question of reproduction, and the problem of birth decline. But these themes, some more evocatively touched upon than others, points to one central theme: the theme of desire, of sexual desire. If Ema is unable to get pregnant, if she is unable to fulfill her purpose, it is because Ayumu does not sexually desires her. In other words, he is impotent, an impotence born from this lack of sexual desire. Sexuality, as everyone knows and as beautifully shown here, has an aspect beyond the biological aspect of copulation.
Ayumu is, logically, frustrated over his phallic failure, more so because every attempt at the Yanuka center to remedy this lack of desire fails. For some reason, Ayumu cannot arouse his sexual desire for Ema. But Ayumu’s failure logically impacts Ema as well. It is thus not only Ayumu that feels guilty, but Ema, taking this failure as her own fault, her own failure to awaken Ayumu’s sexual desire, as well. Sexual desire, despite being either aflame or nearly extinguished in the subject, is ultimately a relational notion. It is therefore not surprising that this frustrating relational failure gives birth to aggressive fantasies in both Ema (her act of attacking the worm) and Ayumu (his dream of killing Ema) (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).
But does the lack of sexual desire mean that Ayumu and Emo do not love each other? While the field of sexual desire is often entangled with the field of love it is important to note that both fields, as the psychanalytical practice teaches us, can function individually. That is to say, the lack of sexual desire between Ayumu and Ema does not preclude that they love each other (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).
The cinematography of Kuma Elohim stands out due to its reliance on static shots – a reliance that invites us to call Sakata’s composition subtly minimalistic. This reliance on cinematographical fixity allows Sakata, who beautifully plays with the geometric dimension, to craft some truly powerful shots, shots that, besides being visually enticing, enhance the mysteriousness that surrounds and permeates Ema and Ayumu’s narrative. Of course, there is cinematographical movement to be noted in Sakata’s composition – i.e. fluid camera-movement. And while this use of movement – ever inserted at fitting moments – infuses some variety into the overall composition this does not diminishes the minimalistic feel that marks the cinematographical composition.
By skillfully using musical accompaniment, Sakata succeeds to infuse a feeling of mystery into the narrative’s atmosphere mysteriousness as well as to empower the already lingering sense of mysteriousness evoked by the evocative narrative as well as the enigmatic aspects that mark the imagery. By keeping the mysteriousness lingering throughout the narrative’s unfolding, Sakata ensures that the spectator remains captivated by this, at times, estranging narrative.
Kuma Elohim is an amazing narrative. Sakata’s mysterious sci-fi narrative not only boasts a myriad of beautiful stylish shots, it also delivers a captivating exploration of the conflictual tension between sexual desire, love, and plight. Yes, the narrative might be difficult to grasp, inviting the spectator’s interpretation more than other narratives, but those who have an open mind for an evocative narrative will not be disappointed.
Narra-note 1: Ayumu’s act of injecting another man’s sperm in Ema is very problematic. Not only because this act is, factually seen, an act of rape – no consent was given by Ema before Ayumu injected the sperm, but also because this act also goes against Ema’s own subjective position, her own desire.
Ema’s desire is, in truth, difficult to grasp. The spectator can either interpreted her reaction as showing her desire of only having a child by Ayumu or as revealing her desire of not being ready to be have a child at all. Depending on the interpretation, the sin of which Ema speaks of attains a different colour. Either the sin she speaks of is the sin of not being pregnant yet or it is the sin of not yet wanting to have a child. The subsequent events seem to favour the more radical interpretation.
Narra-note 2: One could say that it is ultimately the love Ayumu feels for Ema allows him to overcome his impotence. In other words, it is only when the act of making love for Ayumu becomes an act born from love and is not an act of plight that he is able to awaken his sexual desire. One could then contend that it is precisely Ayumu’s love that enables Ema to accept her future as mother and to find her desire to become one. In other words, his love undoes motherhood from its religious plight so that Ema can find it as a position she wants to assume.