Visualized Hearts 可視化する心たち Dir: Akiko Igarashi (2017) Osaka Asian Film Festival Review

Visualized Hearts

可視化する心たちKajika suru kokoro-tachi

Running Time: 76 mins.

Director:  Akiko Igarashi

Writer: Akiko Igarashi (Screenplay),

Starring: Ryuichi Yoshida, Nanami Shirakawa, Yoshio Shin, Aoi Ibuki, Yukina Aoyama, Seishiro Ishida, Riku Tokimitsu, Ayaka Matsui,

JFDB IMDB OAFF

While attending the Osaka Asian Film Festival I saw a whole host of indie films from directors making their debuts or sophomore titles. The festival provided the perfect platform for these new directors to showcase their work, many of which were funded by grants from the Housen Cultural Foundation or the Cineastes Organization Osaka (CO2), or through crowdfunding sites like Motion Gallery. One particular project, Visualised Hearts caught my attention. This film and its director Akiko Igarashi are, in filmic terms, the very definition of the idiom, “a diamond in the rough” but there’s enough potential here to warrant viewing the film and supporting Igarashi, allowing her to polish her talent and shine as a new voice in Japanese science fiction.

Visualised Hearts is Igarashi’s debut feature-length film. She based it on her short film, Kokoro wo Kashikasuru Kikai which was developed as she studied at film school while holding down her company job. Her feature was made on a tiny budget with limited resources and actors recruited from the CO2 Actor Scholarship Project and yet its ideas are big: the benefits and complications of being able to visualise what the human heart feels.

The story takes place in a university located in Kobe where an experiment is being conducted to perfect a machine which can visualise the emotions in a person’s heart. In essence, anybody stood next to the device will have a double created of them as their “heart” is visualised. This double acts like a living breathing, sentient human who can talk. We see the science and its creators in action in the opening sequence.

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The lead scientist is the enigmatic and aloof Souichi (Yoshio Shin) and he has co-developed it with his wife, a plain-spoken intelligent woman named Midori (Nanami Shirakawa). Both are in their late thirties and lead a team of young scientists. They hunker around a computer in a large room which is dominated by a platform surrounded by a mess of wires and tubes tangled around a canister containing water and a crystal. Despite this being a low-budget sci-fi film, the tech looks real enough and pretty interactive. When electricity is passed through the device, ultrasound waves (and an irritating high-pitched noise) are generated and they reveal the image of anybody stood next to the device. This image is fully interactive and will say what a person truly feels.

Souichi volunteers himself as the guinea pig.

The experiment is initially a success. A double of Souichi appears and seems to say something to Midori but an accident occurs and the double disappears while the real Souichi collapses to the ground having fallen into a coma, his consciousness trapped in the machine. Midori is left heart-broken but driven to continue the research in an effort to visualise her husband’s feelings and find a way to reconnect with him.

Visualised Hearts Experiment Results

The people funding the experiment have other ideas. Sceptical about what’s going on, they want to pull the plug. Enter twenty-something researcher Masaki (Ryuichi Yoshida) Visualised Hearts Masaki 2who arrives at the laboratory to announce the suspension of the research and collect information. The more time this naive and guileless scientist spends in the company of Midori, the more he admires and likes her. As he encounters Midori’s double and experiments with his own double, his feelings for her strengthen but will his burgeoning love for her sway Midori from continuing with her experiment to recapture Souichi? A battle of wills takes place as characters try to connect with the ones they love. Will the machine be able make people understand each other better and is the human heart something to be trusted even if the mirror image of a person is telling you what is truly on their mind or is the heart deceitful?

Visualised Hearts Doubles

Split into chapters with titles like “Light of the Sunset” the story is told from Masaki’s perspective and he is a great way into the narrative because a young and earnest researcher named Asumi (Aoi Ibuki playing cute and childlike) develops a crush on himVisualised Hearts Crush and thanks to that crush we get treated to info dumps about the science involved in the form of pleasant conversations. Some quick post-film research suggests that the tech behind visualising the human mind/heart through sonoluminescence seems sound enough. The idea that our hearts and minds produce images that are only detectable through ultrasound is intriguing and a rich source of drama and what occurs through the storyline is more of a philosophical than scientific storyline as a bunch of characters and their doubles get involved in a relationship dance facilitated by the machine.

Human interaction means interpreting the words and actions of others and understanding them. Our interactions are coloured by our mindsets and knowledge and so naivety and experience, insecurity and confidence, count for a lot. The more we learn, the more sophisticated and empathetic we become. This makes for some engaging drama as we see Midori and the other characters battle internally and externally (in the form of their doubles) with concepts such as love and selfishness/selflessness.

Masaki, initially clueless about Midori, turns into an eager hormonal schoolboy in the presence of a beautiful, confident, and experienced older woman and Asumi is also reduced from adult to teen as she tries to get her crush to notice her. The central relationship between Midori and Souichi is intriguing as the two seem like a complete mismatch but there are flashbacks and some lines of dialogue dedicated to their relationship to bring to life the initialVisualised Hearts Midori intrigue and affection they felt for each other to life and give dramatic impetus to their actions further along in the story. It helps that Nanami Shirakawa is an actor with depth and range as she displays steel and vulnerability, playfulness and dedication to her role of Midori.

Just because there are doubles who look exactly like the original person, it doesn’t mean we can trust them to accurately relay what is in the heart and Igarashi’s script muddies the water by having the characters and their doubles switch places and debate things out loud as they wrestle with their emotions – whether it is possible to truly know another person and whether love is selfish or selfless and if we only see what we want to see instead of truly understanding each other. All must face the bitter tincture of reality as they slowly come to understand the feelings they hold for each other and whether their interpretation of the one that they love is the correct one. They use the machine and their doubles to come to some form of truth and it is all competently handled by Igarashi’s direction and writing – especially the use of doubles. At no point is it confusing seeing so many characters on screen. Costume changes and shot-reverse-shots are utilised to get people to talk to their inner selves and it’s all seamless. Some shots are populated by so many characters, it’s a technical marvel.

Indeed, there is some grace to proceedings. For example, as Midori nears understanding why Souichi took the risk of using the machine we see her mirroring his actions from the beginning and following the same path that he did. Meanwhile, Masaki follows Midori’s actions as the characters go smoothly through their elaborate relationship dance.

If there are issues with this film then they are technical, from audio to visual but they are forgivable considering Igarashi is new and, more importantly, they do not hamper the narrative. With support they can be solved. Misjudged sound levels and interference from ambient noise mean some conversations are either muffled because actors are too far away from the microphone or the microphone is pointed at some heavy machinery and picks it up as well as the dialogue. Use of ADR and addressing the mixing would cure these issues. The microphone intrudes at the top of the screen in one scene (maybe the boom operator was tired). Editing feels choppy at the start of the film so scenes feel scrappy because a beat has been taken out. Once past the start, the rhythm is gentle and allows for contemplation. The lab itself is set on a university campus but it feels curiously lifeless. There is an extended cast which gives a sense that there is a wider world out there but the acting from one person can best be described as cliched as he gives his rendition of a mad scientist (having worked with scientists, I have yet to meet someone as disengaged from reality as this one chap). Despite these reservations, they are only minor and don’t hold the film back from being interesting and engaging. Indeed, Igarashi kept my attention the entire time and some of her film has remained with me clearly.

Visualised Hearts Masaki

There are some stunning shots in this which has an elegiac feel to things. There is an autumnal hue thanks to the light tones and the use of browns, yellows and softer colours, especially when scenes take place on location such as on a beach and during the flashbacks in coffee shops and a cinema and a walk along the coast. One particular scene (and I could be wrong about the location) was shot on Suma Beach and has the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge in the background and the warmness of the area, the landscape, the characters and their interactions, have remained quite vividly in my memory for quite some time. More importantly, I felt for the characters and Igarashi’s writing and direction and most of the actor, while new, kept me engaged.

One of the most important jobs of a film critic is to alert people to films that are worth watching and to highlight new and emerging talent. Critics can and should help nurture and encourage this talent because, well, said talent can make more films worth watching. Igarashi is a talent that should be nurtured. Visualised Hearts is undeniably flawed and not the perfect product out of the box like BAMY but what works well carries this film. Igarashi creates a world worth exploring and a cast of engaging characters that discuss interesting ideas. With enough support and encouragement (and a bigger budget), Akiko Igarashi could create something great.

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