A teenage boy attempts to come to terms with grief following the sudden death of his parents in Takuya Koda’s nostalgic youth drama, Piece of Atom (アトムの欠片, Atom no Kakera). Quite clearly influenced by the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi, Koda’s summertime drama contemplates transience and eternity in insisting that nothing’s ever really gone forever and that we leave traces of ourselves wherever we go that may be picked up by anyone able to discern them.
Teenager Ryo is very into science and particularly interested in the nature of the atom. He lives with his parents and much older sister Shiho in a small flat in Tokyo, but when his mother and father are killed in a car accident he is forced to move to a house the family owned in the country which is in a state of disrepair. At around 30, Shiho does her best to create a stable environment for her brother as they work together to repair their home but there’s also strange ethereality in her behaviour that suggests she’s trying to prepare him for an early adolescence.
Neither of them seem to know very much about their parents’ pasts or why it is they have this house which obviously has not been visited in many years. Yet soon after his arrival, Ryo begins to encounter a strange phenomenon in which he almost breathes in floating memories of his father which begin to illuminate the parts of his parents’ lives which had remained hidden from him. He attributes this to the presence of his father’s “atoms” which he shed while, as Ryo discovers, he lived in the area as a student. Later he comes to the realisation that some of his father’s atoms survive in him as well as in everything he ever touched or came into contact with and that he might also posses the atoms of famous historical figures forever connecting him to the great confluence of humanity comforted by the knowledge that his parents did not simply disappear from the world and parts of them will forever remain within it.
Meanwhile, he’s also a city boy trying to adapt to life in the country. His first shock is that his school is so small that there are no grades, all the children are being taught together. In any case he quickly makes a friend with local boy Ken, who shares his love of tokusatsu hero “Woodman”, setting up a secret base for them both in an abandoned car on a local dump. Ryo fights with his sister over personal privacy, irritated by her tendency to tidy his room without warning like any teenage boy might be, while struggling to define his idea of family now that there are only two of them. Before he died, Ryo had wanted to ask his father who had penned a book on the subject why atoms are round and how they hold together only to get a partial answer through one of his visions which is echoed by Shiho’s explanation that it’s his feelings which hold her together as if his unwillingness to let her go literally binds her atoms in their current form.
Yet as she also points out, atoms may be eternal but people are not and she cannot stay with him forever. Echoing the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi, Kudo’s dialogue is often theatrical and self-reflective, while he makes surprising use of green screen and special effects to lend a note of unreality to the world around Ryo as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery across a timeless and nostalgic summer. The atoms he refers to are less physical particles, though clearly that too, than fragments of memory littered over a landscape as a kind of proof of life. Like a snail trail of human existence, they are evidence of the traces left behind by those who have gone allowing Ryo to come to a greater understanding of his parents while learning to let them go in order to move forward with his life. An affecting coming-of age-tale, Kudo’s occasionally psychedelic drama repurposes the atom as an embodiment of memory and feeling, a force that preserves its integrity while allowing its young hero to find an accommodation with loss through the contemplation of eternity.
Piece of Atom screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)