Kensaku Kakimoto might not be a name that many Japanese cinema lovers readily know, but those living in Japan have surely seen some of his commercial media on television. Yet, with Parasites In Love, based on Sugaru Miaki’s novel Koi Suru Kiseichu (2016), can make his name more well-known.
One day, Kengo Kosaka (Kento Hayashi), who suffers from mysophobia, is startled by the presence of a mysterious man in his apartment. The man, Izumi (Arata Iura), offers him a choice, either go to jail for being in the process of making a computer virus or look after a girl for two months for half a million yen.
The next day, at Mizushina park, he meets Hijiri Sanagi (Nana Komatsu), a girl suffering from scopophobia. Yet, due to his fear of being contaminated, their first meeting goes radically wrong. Despite this failure, Izumi keeps pressuring Kengo and demands him to find out why she refuses to go to school.
Parasites In Love is, in short, a unique romance narrative that does not only explore the possible logic of certain mental problems, but also succeeds in revealing, by introducing the fantastical presence of an infectious ill-making parasite, how a desire to cure can be highly problematic and render the benign doctor blind for what’s truly healing.
First things first, what does the narrative allows us to tell the logic of the symptoms? The logic of Kengo’s symptom is beautifully evoked through the medium of the image. The somewhat fantastical visual decorations subtly imply that the element of dirt could only attain its fearful status by becoming a signifier of death and the suicide of his parents. It is, thus, only by ridding himself of all dirt that Kengo can avoid the very confrontation with the traumatic Real of death.
Yet, this formulation is far from complete. The transformation of dirt into such traumatic signifier only happened because it incorporates the very responsibility Kengo subconsciously assumed in his parent’s suicide. What he tries to get rid of is thus not dirt or death as such, but also the very ‘deadly infection’ he himself is. The fear of death that hides in the signifier ‘dirt’ is thus not only a fear of the death that resides in others (i.e. the need to erase the deathly contamination that others spread by touching his things), but also a fear of dying due to his own dirty “sin” (i.e. the need to keep washing his hands) and a fear of killing others with his dirty “sin” (i.e. his fear of touching others or being touched by others) (Psycho-note 1).
Due his phobia, Kengo is marked by a subjective frustration and a deep discontent. His attempt to spread malware to ‘infect’ mobile machines, rendering couples unable to communicate, is solely driven by a certain need to enjoy destroying the pleasure couples have on Christmas Eve. His wish to take revenge on society is, in fact, nothing other than an expression of how tormenting his solitary confinement is. Yet, what Kengo aims to destroy is what he himself most desires: romantic happiness.
The logic of Hijiri Sanagi’s scopophobia is a bit more difficult to grasp as the onset of her symptom is not explicitly explored. Luckily, this narrative void does not mean we cannot analyze certain facets of her symptom. First, it should be clear that despite the prominence of the distorted shape of the eye it is not the eye as such that causes her anxiety. That what threatens to annihilate Hijiri as subject is the gaze of the Other (Psycho-note 2). The distorted eye is, in other words, merely the vehicle of this gaze, the signal that the Other’s threatening enjoyment lingers around her. To keep herself functioning, Hijiri cancels out the persecutory voice of the societal Other by wearing headphones and avoids, as much as possible, the encounter with others and the site where the Other’s gaze of enjoyment resides, i.e. the eyes.
Yet, how can we rhyme our reading of her symptom with Hijiri’s own explanation? In our view, her elaboration of the ‘bug inside my head’ has attained a subtle delusional flavour to not only make sense of her experience but also to keep herself, as subject, functioning within this ever-threatening societal Other. The story of an infectious bug residing in her head that feeds on other humans’ brain to grow (and ultimately kill her) has no other function that to explain why the Other wants to enjoy her. For Hijiri, the bug is a signifier that locates the object that the other wants to enjoy and that wants to enjoy the other (Narra-note 1). It is this vague delusion that drives her interest in all kinds of infections, like toxoplasmosis in rats, and parasites, like the diplozoon paradoxum.
Why does the encounter of Kengo with Hijiri have a healing effect on both? Why can Hijiri take of her headphones in his presence and Kengo take off is mask when she is around? Simply speaking, because they can form, for the first time in their life, a true connection with another subject and attain a sense of shared understanding. Yet, this increasingly romantic connection is only possible because Kengo appears before Hijiri as emptied from any kind of persecutory enjoyment – i.e. no enjoyment in his voice and no enjoying gaze resides in his eyes, and Hijiri appears before Kengo as a kind of dirt that he can live with – a kind of dirt disconnected from the Real of death and the dimension of his deathly desire.
Yet, the ‘factual’ presence of the ‘bug/parasite’ seemingly problematizes our analysis of the logic of Hijiri and Kengo’s symptom as well as our explanation as to why the formation of a connection between both is ‘healing’ for them. Even though the ‘parasite’ plays an important role in causing symptoms, rendering subjects unable to function within society, and seems to take control of its host to attract another parasite, one should not let oneself duped by the radical negative interpretation of the parasite by Hijiri’s grandfather and doctor Yuichi (Ryo Ishibashi). Parasites In Love beautifully implies that, in a certain way, the parasite is closely entangled with the element of love and that any attempt to eradicate this parasite, this love, can drive people to commit suicide (Psycho-note 3). Is it not the psychiatric desire to cure, to cut out a part of a person’s subjectivity and force them into a sort of a ‘mundane and loveless normality’ rather than the bug itself that is more destructive? Does Yuichi’s singular focus on curing not cause a radical effacing of the subjectivity of the ‘ill’ person in his ‘care’? And is the parasite not an integral part of our subjectivity (Psycho-note 4)?
As our short analysis reveals, Parasites In Love is far from a ‘straightforward’ romance narrative. Kakimoto does not only blend moments of drama, subtle lightheartedness, and touching romantic moments fluidly together, but does so in a way that the spectator is forced to question the usefulness of ‘biological’ approaches to mental health. By doing so, Kakimoto does not only deliver one of the most original romance narratives of the year, but also offers an inventive critique of the current tendencies in Japanese psychiatry. Yet, the narrative would have even been more satisfying if Kakimoto could have made the spectator feel the heartfelt emotions in the finale more deeply.
The composition of Parasites in Love, a balanced mix between static and dynamic moments, stands out due to its pleasant visual flow. This visual flow is not only function of Kakimoto’s sense of compositional rhythm, allowing him to give the visual unfolding of scenes a pleasing fluidity, but also due to his often-elegant shot-compositions and his smooth integration of visual decorations like slow-motion and fantastical visual elements to evoke what is difficult to vocalize or express. The visual flow of Parasites in Love is further enhanced by the fluid integration of musical accompaniment, while the visual pleasure of Kakimoto’s composition is heightened by its enticing colour-design.
Parasites in Love is, without a doubt, one of the most original romance narratives of the year. Kakimoto does not only please the spectator with his elegant composition and by crafting a heartwarming romance story, but also by offering a credible exploration of the logic of symptoms and a thought-provoking questioning of how we deal, as a society, with subject with mental problems.
Psycho-note 1: It is precisely because the repressed responsibility for his parent’s suicide underpins the signifier ‘dirt’ that relations malfunction. Each contact with the other echoes the very possibility of instigating the decay of the other’s body.
The fear of being contaminated by others is, in this respect, not only the sign of the death that marked the bodies of his deceased parents, but also projection of his own repressed filthy responsibility into the other. The difficulty he has with eating restaurant food is, as is beautifully visually implied, also closely linked the element of death.
Psycho-note 2: That it is the gaze that is problematic and not simply the eyes of others is also subtly underlined by the fact that her own eyes are also anxiety-inducing.
Psycho-note 3: In our view, the symptom Hijiri and Kengo is not simply caused by the parasite. In both cases, a lack of love can be assumed to have fed the parasite. In Hijiri’s case, her grandfather never ‘saw’ her as anything more than a carrier of the murderous parasite. And, in Kengo’s case, the suicide of his parents put the dimension of parental love radically into question.
Psycho-note 4: In our view, the parasite can also be understood as representing the Freudian unconscious as such. This unconscious is not only something that is intrinsically linked with out symptoms, but also something that ‘controls’ us beyond our consciousness.
Narra-note 1: Even if, at the mental institution, they talk about the presence of parasites who forces their hosts to commit suicide – a parasite that has also nested in Hijiri’s brain, her elaboration of the ‘bug’ still has a delusional element.