With every narrative he has created, Shugo Fujii has succeeded in impressing audiences. Red Line Crossing (2017) offered a though-provoking plea to pay more attention within mental health in Japanese society. With Mimicry Freaks (2019), he proved himself to a director who fully understands the meaning of horror. And Frantic (2021) offered a thrilling exploration of the synonymous nature of desire and madness. Can Fujii deliver, with his corona-inspired Kingdom Of The Apes, another narrative that thrills the spectator?
Anchor-woman Chiba (Etsuko Tanemura) is aghast to see that a news feature that questions the safety of vaccines has been reshot without her approval. She thought that all shooting footage had been deleted. Chiba pressures the producer Nishi (Ayumu Okumoto) to cancel it, yet, he decides to re-edit it and air the feature. Some time later, Aina Satake (Takako Sakai) bursts into the underground editing room with Takenouchi (Kazuma Wakebe) in tow to demand to know who gave the order to re-edit the news feature. Miyaji (Tomoya Mochizuki), already busy with re-editing, closes the door. After a short discussion, Satake realizes that the three of them are locked up. Some time earlier, in a conference room on the top floor, a meeting starts between director Sai (Daiki Tanaka), program producer Nishi, Chiba, and Masanobu Motokawa (Takahiro Ochi), the director of the news feature.
Kingdom of The Apes is not simply a revenge thriller, but a narrative that expertly utilize the structure of a thriller to deliver a biting commentary of certain dynamics that structure Japanese society. With his narrative structure, Fujii does not only ensnares the spectator with the mystery of the reshoot of the cancelled news feature and Chiba’s vicious opposition to air it, but also succeeds in delivering a rich-in-twists denouement that deeply satisfies the spectator and confronts him the destruction caused by a certain societal dynamic.
The first indication that Fujii’s narrative function as a societal critique is when Masanobu Motokawa, upon entering the conference room, asks his colleague whether it is true that many people commit suicide here. His colleague answers, with a straight face, that it is a common practice in Japanese companies (Narra-note 1). This interaction, in short, echoes that certain social dynamics within Japanese society are highly problematic, violent, and destructive.
The societal dynamic Kingdom of The Apes critiques is nothing other than the dynamic of censorship. Chiba, the anchor-woman, the face of the tv-station, functions, within the narrative, as a societal censor. She represents the prohibition to disturb the harmonious fiction of Japanese society (wa) and complicate the fake unity of voices. Dissident voices are violently robbed of their right to be heard. With manipulative signifiers and acts, Chiba’s sole aim is to protect the collective consciousness by silencing the ‘unconscious’ protest against the imposed societal discourses (e.g. vaccines are safe).
Yet, the cancellation of the first previous news feature already caused ripples in the societal fabric. This ripples signal that some people, like Motokawa and his journalist friend, refuse to comply with mainstream peaceful narratives and want to make what is forced to remain ‘unconscious’, i.e. that what is not yet said or what is not allowed to be questioned, heard and infuse more conflictual diversity into the voices that make up the collective consciousness, a consciousness full of empty chitter-chatter, hollow laughter, and obedient nodding.
Kingdom Of The Apes subtly reveals that it is not simply the desire to maintain societal piece that calls forth the censoring instance, but also the impulse of those in power to mould the societal fabric into compliance so that their position of power remains untouchable and untainted. Moreover, the censoring reflex is introduced as a non-command and robbed from its identifiable vocalized instance. The repeated usage of the idea of the ‘station’ is, in this sense, not merely an attempt at avoiding responsibility, but a signal that the true demand to impose harmony on subjects resides within the societal Other. It is, in other words, the weight of the nation (kokutai) as Other that impels subjects, especially those in power, to support the fantasy of societal harmony (Narra-note 2).
Such manipulative play with hierarchy, beyond allowing those in power to escape their responsibility, also enables them to sacrifice those beneath them, to force the lowly others to assume the responsibility for any kind of disturbance within the fake harmony of thought, for allowing a scandalous unconscious protest to appear and question the imposed societal discourses.
The composition of Kingdom Of The Apes stands out due to its stylish but frantic dynamism (Cine-note 1). This dynamism is, first of all, function of the cinematographical movement – from slow-moving fluid to fast-paced shaky. The rich use of crude shakiness, moreover, forbids the spectator to take a moment of rest. Secondly, Fujii’s dynamism also relies on his rich and snappy use of cuts. It is by playing with pace and rhythm that he heightens the dramatic nature and the tension of certain interactions, but also keeps the spectator, artificially, on edge.
Fujii’s trademark dynamism enables him to engage the spectator immediately with the narrative by throwing him headlong within a tensive atmosphere with little possibility to orient himself – the spectator ever balancing between not-fully-understanding and wanting-to-know. The only narrative elements the spectator is able to hold on to are the riddle concerning the bitch that reshot the news feature and Chiba’s desire to censor this feature at all costs.
While the quite frantic editing of the imagery ensures that a certain tension marks the unfolding of the narrative, the musical accompaniment is important in evoking the mystery dimension of the narrative and highlight sudden rises in tension.
With Kingdom of the Apes, Fujii proves, once again, that he is the master of indie-thrillers. With his trademark dynamism, he takes the spectator on a thrilling and captivating journey that does not only delivers a highly satisfying denouement, but also a biting critique of how Japanese society, structured around the fantasy of the kokutai, struggles to accept a plurality of voices. Luckily, Fujii’s narrative elegantly shows that what is violently forced to remain unconscious will always rears its head one way or another.
Narra-note 1: Motokawa’s question about suicide is coupled with a shocking revelation in the finale. By adding such a shocking pun, Fujii allows the spectator to fully realize how unwanted ‘unconscious’ protest is for the fictional harmony of the nation.
Fujii’s narrative, in essence, shows that such dissident protest, from the perspective of the harmonious nation, needs to be silent at all costs but also that the unconscious, as that what is unwanted within the societal discourses, can never be silenced – the repressed will always return.
General-note 1: The three monkeys, i.e. Mizaru, who sees no evil, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, who hears no evil, covering his ears, andIwazaru, who speaks no evil, covering his mouth, are an important image/signifier within the narrative.
In essence, these monkeys represent the reflex within Japanese society to exterminate plurality of voices and force an unitary system of thought onto its subjects. The monkeys demand that subjects subjected to the Japanese language ignore the multitude of signs that the unitary system of thought is but an imaginary construction and forgo their right to think their own Other.
One of most profound statements in the narrative comes from Chiba: Do you know what happens if you show a monkey a porno movie? They masturbate until they die. Is it our fault for showing the movie? With this statement, Fujii shows how the responsibility of inscribing into the harmonious discourse of the nation is shifted on the subject. He is responsible for accepting the Other as we present it to him, not we who desire to manipulate him into submission.
Narra-note 2: It should be evident that the dynamics of the station are meant to represent the political and societal dynamics of Japan as nation.
Cine-note 1: Other elements that Fujii utilize in his dynamic composition are sudden shifts in colour-schemes and fast-forwards.