In these troubling times, there might very well be an important role reserved for comedy. Comedy is – and no one will doubt this – a useful tool to temporally efface the inner trouble that marks the subject. In this sense, Shinji Hamasaki’s first feature film might well be a welcome gift.
Nanase Nobata (Suzu Hirose), singer of the idol/death metal band Souls, hates her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the president of a pharmaceutical company. While she, as a child, identified with his scientific way of life, undoing the magic of literary fantasies and the wondrous elements of life by reformulating them in ‘cold’ scientific terms, she now desires nothing other than his death. Then, one day, her desire is satisfied.
Not Quite Dead Yet might seem, at first glance, a narrative about the rivalry between pharmaceutical companies – i.e. Nobata Pharmaceutics and Watson Pharmaceutics – and the attempts of Watson Pharmaceutics to either merge with Nobata Pharmaceutics or to steal their research data on a rejuvenation drug called Romeo, the narrative’s true theme concerns desire and the function it plays in giving life to the subject. In this sense, the rivalry, which nevertheless plays a really important role in the unfolding of Not Quite Dead Yet, is a simple narrative device that enables an exploration of the role the oedipal relation plays in creating the space for a subject to assume a desire for him- or herself and, thus, to give a certain vitality to his/her existence.
The problem of desire is, unsurprisingly, explored via the trajectory of Nanase, the president’s daughter. While she might, in the very first scene, give the impression of being afraid of a certain Other – talking, as if she wants to protect herself from this Other, about unimportant details (e.g. the precise order in which she eats her bento-box) or plainly ignoring what this Other says, this Other does not scare her at all, as illustrated by the ease and the pleasure by which she resorts to aggressive speech when confronted with his Other.
Nanase is, in fact, in a state of rebellion. She rebels against her father as Other and the Other in so far as it represents or echoes her father; Her father is for her, in other words, a problematic presence. The lyrics of her song called Not Quite Death Yet corroborate this state of rebellion and highlight that she plainly refuses her father – she, in fact, refuses her father in his Real state. But what can be the cause of this refusal or, in better words, what caused her love for him to become hidden behind a discourse of hate (Narra-note 1 (minor spoiler))?
Nanase, for a long while, inscribed herself in the scientific discourse of her father. She assumed, out of love, his desire for her to become a researcher as her own desire. But at the same time, as the insistence of the signifier ‘death’ implies, this identification forced her into a state of subjective death. Nanase, by becoming the logical robotic system her father so desired, repressed that what makes us human, which is the illogical enjoyment that animates subjectivity.
In this sense, we should describe Nanase’s rebellion as an urgent expression of the fact that she is Not Quite Dead Yet, of the fact that she is still alive, has a soul, and enjoys. Her rebellion is a message to the Other who is her father – I refuse a subjective death; I embrace a state of enjoyment. But in stating and singing her message of refusal – and this is important – Nanase in fact reveals that her life is still determined by her father, the father she aims to exorcise. In other words, she has yet to become her own subject; she is still unable to give her own existence vitality or life by assuming a desire she can call hers (Narra-note 2). Can her father’s sudden death allow her to overcome her ‘dead’ position of rebellion and assume a desire that will breathe life into her own subjective trajectory (Narra-note 3 (spoiler))?
As is clear from above, Not Quite Dead Yet has a clearly delineated thematic structure, but – and this is the main problem with the narrative – the preoccupation with delivering comedy and lightheartedness ultimately results in a narrative unable to deliver its pointe in a touching manner – the preoccupation with fun, in fact, drains the narrative from the vital pulse that would have made the narrative into meaningful and impactful experience. Without this vital pulse, Not Quite Dead Yet is merely fun and not the kind of fun that has a lasting impression, but a kind of fun that dissipates as soon as the credits start rolling (Cine-note 1).
The composition of Not Quite Dead Yet – a straightforward composition that offers a mix of fixed shots and dynamic shots (i.e. tracking moments as well as spatial moving moments), stands out due to compositional snappiness. This compositional snappiness is instrumental in creating a pleasing flow within scene-compositions. The composition is furthermore decorated with lighthearted visual sequences, e.g. the animated bento sequence as well as visual style of the flashbacks, and, to aid the comedy, a lighthearted use of non-diegetic sounds.
Suzu Hirose’s performance in Not Quite Dead Yet is great, as she succeeds in giving her over-acting (i.e. her exaggerated expressions and vocalization) a pleasing and endearing charm or, in some other cases, a subtle seductive beauty. While those spectators who hate over-acting do best to skip this narrative, those who feel at home with Japan’s usual style of lighthearted comedy and fans of Suzu Hirose will find a lot to like in this narrative.
Not Quite Dead Yet delivers fun in spades, but the abundance of comical moments and lighthearted interactions ultimately creates a superficial experience that murders the potential of the central thematic pulse to truly move the spectator. While Not Quite Dead Yet is about the importance of communication and about assuming a desire as subject, Hamasaki’s narrative delivers its message in manner that is, when all is said and done, not alive enough.
Cine-note 1: Yet, while the preoccupation with comedy slowly robs the narrative’s message of its power to touch the spectator, Hamasaki’s narrative remains commendable for striking such a nice balance between comedy driven by over-acting and conversational comedy.
Narra-note 1: The reason for Nanase’s hate for her father has a rather oedipal reason. One could say, without spoiling too much, that her father, by a certain act, problematized his position as husband within the family as well as the dimension of love as something that binds a woman and a man.
Narra-note 2: This subjective problem that marks Nanase – i.e. the lack of a desire to call her own, the lack of a desire that gives her vitality or life – is revealed by the music scout as well as by her father in his discourse on Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. It should be mentioned that Nanase’s father – and this is important – does not realize that he describes the problem that renders her unable to realize a true living desiring position and that he does not realize his own role in her position of subjective death.
Not that much later, in a discussion with her bandmembers, Nanase is directly confronted with fact that she has no desire of her own.
Narra-note 3: As it was an act by the father problematized the dimension of love as something than binds a man and a woman together, one should not be surprised that it is another act by the father that resuscitates the dimension of love as that something that binds a man and woman as well as that something that structures the relation between father and daughter.
In other words, while the first act (seemingly) exposed him as being beyond love, another act reveals to Nanase that he, despite his scientific lifestyle, was and is still driven by love, i.e. a love for his wife and a love for his daughter. By way of this revelation, Hamasaki can underline – and this is the central message of the narrative – the importance of communicating with each other within oedipal relationships.