Release Date: 2019
Duration: 154 mins.
Director: Isamu Hirabayashi
Writer: Isamu Hirabayashi (Script)
Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Keisuke Horibe, Kanako Higashi, Aiko Sato, Hiromi Kitagawa, Kaori Takeshita,
Isamu Hirabayashi moved from the world of advertising and graphic design to indie films in 2001 and has made a number of shorts that have been selected for festivals like Locarno and Berlinale. Shell and Joint (2019) is his first feature and it is a truly unique title that shines with a visual opulence derived from someone with an eye for framing and a deep consideration for angles and colours, while its script shimmers with a comedic wit that tackles universal themes in a variety of genres and tones, as brought out in a series of stories that are enhanced by the look and sound of the film.
Opening proceeding are Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) and Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), two people who have been friends from childhood who now work together at the front desk of a capsule hotel. Nitobe has a particular fondness for philosophy and crustaceans while Sakamoto is fixated on suicide and winding up her friend during their long conversations. They form the manzai duo whose interactions rise in silliness as the film keeps revisiting them while guests come and go.
Although the film keeps cutting back to them, since the hotel serves to draw a variety of guests we get to follow different people around the premises and out into the world. These people include actresses, a researcher studying crustaceans, and a Finnish woman with the scent of death about her. The cast of quirky guys and gals expands outside of the hotel to include beekeepers, criminals in forests and even some “pests” in a shed, all of whom make up the local population, some of whom are undergoing an existential crisis or suffering some insect or crustacean related body horror.
None of their lives ever intersect in the hotel. Nor do any of the lives outside of it, for that matter. However, they are all linked by common concerns such as love, sex, mortality and the differences between males and females and these themes are explored in a series of vignettes that pick up one after the other and sometimes get circled back to. If that sounds like intellectual masturbation, it isn’t. The vignettes vary in tone from comedy to crime and even interpretive dance or just watching a character take public transport. Since scenes follow on from one another, there is always something new to enjoy.
A lot of the content is wry comedy wrapped up in philosophical musings that are unfurled in winding conversations as characters hover around some subject. The dialogue is littered with lots of great lines delivered by actors who make their characters vivacious and memorable and it feels as if these people will be able to carry on living once the camera is off them. However, there are some startling moments of darkness like a quick scene where a murder might be committed, a ritualistic mating ritual is done in a wasteland and it leads to mechanical sex and there is the hint of death that hovers at the edge of each story. At points, it felt like the hotel might be some way station between Earth and the afterlife, not least because of Nitobe and Sakamoto’s black uniforms.
That written, there are also lots of surreal moments and visual gags that will catch audiences off guard and charm them such as a dance sequence that takes place in what looks like a university campus which always ends with a cascade of balls that tumble down a set of stairs.
Everything is recorded in static shots and long takes which is where strange behaviour can slowly emerge and difficult topics be mined for humour and sadness. Two guys in a sauna, one of them rambling unhinged about erections is a highly cringe-inducing scene but my favourite is a debate about the nature of existence that is had by some non-humans. The audio gags also work in sync with the visual where the beat of the score matches the movement on screen and serves to heighten tension or comedy.
While the film is 150 minutes long, it has a good rhythm thanks to the way its story is broken down into vignettes and the actors bring tremendous energy to their performance. A massive bonus is how it is always eye-catching. There is outstanding framing of the landscape with methodical use of one point perspective in some scenes and having the set/location bisected by an object to create an angle in others. I loved the visuals. This features some of the best visual composition I have seen in a film in a long time. It serves to accentuate the beauty of the landscape and it is all highlighted by beautiful and accentuated by pristine cinematography.
So, while the same themes, locations and characters are revisited, it is never boring due to the variety of stories and styles and the beauty.
This movie has come out of nowhere to be one of my favourites of 2020.
If you are unsure whether to take a punt on this or not, I’d say give it a go.
You can find the hotel featured in the film here.