The Town of Headcounts (2020) review [Nippon Connection 2021]

Introduction

Shinji Araki, 50 years old, has been active in the advertising industry for a long time as a CM planner and creative director. Yet, in 2012, he started to write scenarios and submitted them for competitions. In 2017, after winning the Excellence Award of the TV Asahi Newcomer Scenario Award in 2016 and the Excellence Award of the MBS Radio Award in 2017, his script The Town of Headcounts won the semi-grand prix of the 1st Kinoshita Group New Director Award. Three years later, his debut successfully released nationwide and attracted enough international interest to be screened at film festivals around the world.  

Review

One day, Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura), who is being beaten up, is rescued by Paul (Yamanaka So). Paul, sensing Aoyama’s desperation and struggle, invites him to town where there is only peace. Not long after he has arrived, while lingering around the pool, he is approached by a girl, Midori (Eri Tachibana), who introduces him to some of the rules he needs to follow.

Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi), Midori’s sister, has been searching for her sister. One day, by mere chance, she spots Midori on the news in relation to a terror attack. The next day, at the hospital, she learns that all the victims were released. She follows a rather suspicious guy at the hospital and asks him about her sister. He gives her a flyer and warns her that, by finding her sister, she might lose herself. Yet, this warning, does not stop her from going to the town of headcounts.

The Town of Headcounts is a narrative that, at its most psychological level, explores the difficulty of finding a safely moored symbolic place within a certain society, about the struggle to assume a position that allows one to fully integrate or alienate oneself satisfactorily within a societal system.

It is, from the very start of the narrative, clear that Aoyama is marked by such social struggle. He is not only a “nobody with a weak will”, but also someone who does not belong anywhere within society, who has lost one’s purpose in society, and who failed, due to whatever reason, to establish a position that inscribes him in a sufficient and constructive way within the societal network of bonds. He has, in other words, a lack of meaningful bonds to support his ego and position within a societal system.

While Aoyama is given, with Paul’s assistance, a way out of the society he cannot find a place in – he becomes, in fact, symbolically erased from said society, he does, in truth, not escape a societal system carried by the sum of its social bonds. The town that promises ‘freedom’ from the larger society is, whatever way one looks at it, a societal system itself. This ‘truth’ is revealed by the mere existence of a guide (‘the bible’), a set of rules and prohibitions jotted down in a book to organize the social dynamics of the town and further emphasized by using ‘social’ signifiers like ‘town’ and ‘resident’.  

The Town of Headcounts (2020) by Shinji Araki.

Freedom is, in fact, is a complicated affair in this town of no-names. While one has, of course, gained freedom from the demands and ‘oppressive’ effects of society, the subject is subjected to a different set of rules – rules to ensure equality; rules and prohibitions that, in ensuring equality, severely limits the ‘freedoms’ of the subject (Narra-note 1). This aspect is already made evident by how one must greet each other – Hi, Fellow plus a (dis)honest compliment – and the ‘social’ dynamic of accessing non-expired food and drinks, either by praising (or bashing/bullying) others on the internet, by playing games, or by fulfilling certain ‘jobs’ (e.g. voting, influencing, … etc.) outside town.

Giving praise acts as a kind of social imperative. Yet, this rule, beyond giving the dynamics in town its structure, force subjects to engage with each other in a superficial way – interactions are hollow – and to approach the other at the level of his imaginary body or for the sexual pleasure the other’s body might give the subject. In the attempt to establish equality at the level of society and erase all those social elements that could cause the subject’s unbehagen, something of the subject’s subjectivity needs to be given up, needs to be repressed.  

The Town of Headcounts (2020) by Shinji Araki.

The act of being chipped (to prevent people from escaping) when one first arrives in the town, underlines that each subject is, in fact, imprisoned and subjected to the rules and instructions. Besides the social imperative of giving praise, two other instructions are ‘search for sexual enjoyment’ and ‘have no stress or frustrations’. Yet, for many, this prison of superficiality works perfectly. It works, because the system functions as an escape from something much worse – a destructive societal system that radically fails to protect its ‘subjectively ailing’ or ‘socially damaged’ subjects.   

The odd jobs they need to do to keep being fed (i.e. manipulating voting and re-electing a corrupt politician, acting as influencers on social media, being figurants in a terror attack, doing public protesting, … etc.) does implies that the true purpose of this closed-off community is far darker than the subjects that re stuck in its protective grasp can imagine.   

The societal solution that aims to solve Japan’s societal problems – e.g. 84,865 missing people in Japan, 9,851 cyber-homeless, 8,235 bankruptcies per year, 27,75 million tons of wasted food per year, 168,015 abortions per year, 7,06 million people have never voted, 1,37 people unemployed – is, despite its promises and ‘benefits’, a different kind of ‘evil’, a different version of a social problem. Not only are our headcounts forced to support the problematic dynamics that mark our current Japanese society (e.g. election manipulation, buying likes, cyberbullying, … etc.), but the rules of this ‘paradise of equality’ radically forbid any kind of inter-subjective bonds to blossom or any ‘thinking’ subject to emerge (Narra-note 2). Bonds between ‘fellows’ are but empty imaginary structures marked by fake friendliness and all encounters turn around getting sexual gratification, an ephemeral but soothing gratification that keeps the subject happily blind for his own subjective and social emptiness. Town of Headcounts actually forces the spectator to ask himself the following: Do I prefer a peaceful life as an empty subjective shell dictated by a need for some sedating masturbatory pleasure or a life, within a highly problematic societal Other, where I engage in social bonds that, by rattling the real of my body and my subjective position (i.e. affects), enliven my social existence?      

The Town of Headcounts (2020) by Shinji Araki.

The composition of The Town of Headcounts – a generallystatic affair with, in some cases, some tracking or spatial movement thrown into the mix, stands out due to its artful shot-compositions and its darkish lightning design. By exploiting the geometrical dimension of the ‘bare’ architecture and thoughtfully using lighting in his shot-compositions, Araki succeeds in crafting many visually pleasing moments in his narrative. The use of more dynamism is the latter part of the narrative is instrumental in making the finale of The Town Of Headcounts a thrilling, chilling, but somewhat hopeful experience (Sound-note 1).

The Town of Headcounts is an amazing debut by Araki. His dystopian ‘thriller’ does not only masterly highlight, in a chilling way, the various ills that marks contemporary society, but also shows, that within such dystopian world, a subject can always rediscover something to life and fight for, that the subject can always gain that particular feeling that, despite the pain such feeling might cause, gives him a (renewed) purpose within the problematic society he tried to escape from.    

Notes

Narra-note 1: Some of things thar are prohibited include living together, marriage and pregnancy. While it is not said what that many words, the finale forces us to accept that something like love, romance, and attachment is also prohibited within this community.

Narra-note 2: In a certain way, the town of headcounts acts as a support of the problematic elements that structure the larger society. The desirability of the solution for the exploited other is heightened and the financial funds are secured by supporting/strengthening the ills that poison society.     

Sound-note 1: Araki also utilizes the narrating voice in his narrative. The voice of Aoyama is used in an introductory fashion – introduces himself to the spectator as nobody, weak willed, and not belonging in society – and to vocalize his reading of the ‘bible’.

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