“You’re a real weirdo, aren’t you?” the lonely hero of Junji Sakamoto’s existential psychodrama My Brother, the Android and Me (弟とアンドロイドと僕, Ototo to Android to Boku) is constantly told not least by his exasperated and unsympathetic boss but on another level may be the most human of them all longing for a sense of connection in a world which seems to have rejected him to the point that he is no longer sure whether or not he actually exists. Quite clearly drawing inspiration from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus as well as its many film adaptations though most obviously the 1931 Universal Horror classic, Sakamoto’s oblique chronicle of crippling loneliness presents a man estranged from himself but looking for comfort in his reflected image.
Sakamoto opens the film in true gothic fashion, his hero Kaoru (Etsushi Toyokawa) a dark and mysterious figure obscured by an oilskin coat amid the ever falling rain illuminated only by the light of an ominous moon. As we discover he works as a university professor but says nothing to his students other than making an apology for his poor handwriting, sometimes writing with both hands at once as he recreates complex algorithms on an old-fashioned chalkboard. The students all mock him, not least because of a curious neurological condition which prevents him from fully controlling his right leg with the consequence that he is often compelled into strange, jerking movements or else to hop on one foot from place to place. In truth, his errant right leg is a symptom of Kaoru’s sense of displacement in that he does not quite feel it to be his own and experiences only pain when his right heel is in contact with the floor.
It’s this problem with his leg that seems to most irk his boss who later invasively barges in to the gothic western-style mansion/disused hospital where he lives in the company of his nephew, a psychiatrist, who probably means well but offers little more than platitudes in insisting that Kaoru’s leg has simply been left off his internal schematics so all they need to do is mentally reconnect it. His boss meanwhile bizarrely states that Kaoru needs to get well “so that cracked roads can be fixed”, ironically treating his body like a machine that needs to be repaired so that it is optimised for work rather than out of care for another human being who may be in pain. Having barged into Kaoru’s office, he’d discovered his secret project in a highly complex, lifelike robotic arm which was a problem for him because he was supposed to be working on a robot that fixes potholes which seems almost ironic in its banality. In any case, Kaoru also has the rather unfortunate habit of entirely ignoring the person talking to him as if they weren’t even there which is in itself an ironic inversion of the way others see, or more to the point don’t see, him. Kaoru’s boss describes him as creepy because he has no presence, you’re never sure if he’s there or not, but can immediately sense the “giant” presence of his other self, the lifelike android he’s building in his spare time.
The android is in its way his Frankenstein’s monster, an ironic attempt to rebirth himself constructed in the ruins of his family’s abandoned obstetrics hospital. By chance, he meets a young woman (Yuki Katayama) who closely resembles himself and carries her into his laboratory like the Bride of Frankenstein but treats her only with tenderness and sympathy while attempting to fend off his estranged half-brother (Masanobu Ando) constantly hassling him for money to pay for medical care for the father who abandoned him. His mother had instructed him to find his other self which is perhaps what he’s been doing if caught between the Id and Superego of his brother and father. Constant fire imagery including the repeated motif of a burning body in a conventional fireplace keys us in to Kaoru’s positioning as a “modern Prometheus” whose duty it is to keep the fire in while giving birth to himself as manifested in a perfect manmade creation that others may find frightening or uncanny though the android itself has done nothing wrong because it is in essence the embodiment of Kaoru’s frustrated humanity. Featuring sumptuous gothic production design with sci-fi sheen, Sakamoto’s steely, fragmentary drama finds a man in search of himself while also a perpetual exile but discovering a sense of warmth in the uncanniness of a reflected image.
My Brother, the Android and Me streams in the US until March 27 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-up Cinema
International trailer (English subtitles)