The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Masakazu Kaneko, 2016)

A young man is forced to face up to the nature of existential struggle when tasked with killing a god in Masakazu Kaneko’s meditation on land, modernity, and the taking of a life, The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Albino no Ki). Filled with a sense of unease, Kaneko’s parabolic drama asks if it’s right to force others to live in the way you think is best, if it’s right to take the life of an animal simply because it’s inconvenient to you, and if it’s right to assume ownership over the natural landscape as if it’s yours to do with as you wish. To the young man at the film’s centre, these questions are ones he thinks he can’t afford to ask but is eventually confronted with in committing what to some may be an unforgivable transgression. 

Yuku (Ryohei Matsuoka) used to work in removals but times being what they are, his boss has taken a left turn accepting lucrative contracts working as animal control agents on behalf of local councils carrying out culls of wildlife deemed out of control. His colleague Imamori (Shuichiro Masuda) remains conflicted. He isn’t completely happy with this kind of work but has been persuaded that it’s necessary though it still seems cruel to him if not morally wrong to hunt and kill healthy animals solely for existing. Nemoto (Hiroyuki Matsukage), their boss, is keen for them to take on a well paid “confidential” job but with so little information the guys are reluctant, something about it seems shady. Nevertheless, with his mother seriously ill and needing money for medical treatment Yuku agrees as does Imamori only to discover that not even the local councillor who hired them wants to explain what the job is. 

The councillor does, however, begin to outline the economic history of the town once dependent on coal mining now pivoting towards innovative farming. With barely concealed disdain, he replies to Yuku’s inquiry as to whether the mountain in question is inhabited by briefly remarking on a traditional village on the other side the existence of which seems to fill him with such disgust one half wonders if Yuku’s contract job is even darker than it seems. He laments that they have “no desire to develop”, continuing to live a traditional rural existence rather than succumbing to the dubious conveniences of modernity. On meeting up with their contact (Hatsunori Hasegawa), another hunter living on the ridge, the pair discover that their assignment is to eliminate an albino deer because, according to the hunter, the council is nervous that some may assume its mutation hints at corruption in the soil endangering the stability of their eco farming project. The problem is that the villagers believe the albino deer to be an embodiment of the White Deer God that protects the mountain as part of their Shinto animist beliefs and have been protecting it by dismantling all his traps. Imamori declines to go through with the job, feeling that it’s wrong to kill the deer just because it was born different but thinking only of his mother Yuku is determined to do whatever it takes.  

His dilemma is in a sense mirrored by that of Nagi (Kanako Higashi), a young woman from the village he rescues from an animal trap who tells him that she remains torn between the allure of modernity and a traditional rural existence. Yoichi (Yusuke Fukuchi), a young man making a living carving traditional wooden bowls, is determined to preserve ancient beliefs Yuku regards as backwards and superstitious convincing himself that killing the deer is also an act of liberation that will bring enlightenment to the villagers so that they won’t “need” to live in such an archaic and primitive way. But as Yoichi tries to explain to him, you can’t force people to conform to your own way of thinking, it’s not as if anyone is a prisoner here if they didn’t like it they’d leave as all of the other young people have already done. He asks him if a world in which you simply eliminate things which are “inconvenient” to you is one you really want to live in but Yuku isn’t here for such philosophical questions only baffled by what he sees as primitive superstition that stands in the way of progress. 

Yet, the village is largely untouched by the corruptions of the modern society. The water in its rivers is clean and sweet, the wood in its trees strong and beautiful. As Nagi explains to him, the White Deer God has given them permission to drink from these springs, and permission to harvest the trees. By contrast, there’s an unpleasant look of triumph in Yuku’s eyes as he shoots deer from a distance killing for no reason at all, man overcoming nature. He thinks only of his own survival, taking the lives of other living things in order to preserve his own, determined to save his mother but indifferent to the fates of others. When it comes to killing the white deer his hands shake, struck for the first time by the enormity of what he’s doing while literally preparing to kill a god. While Yoichi venerates and protects the natural environment in a process of symbiotic living, Yuku sides with those willing to exploit it for economic gain brainwashed into believing that living with the land is “backward” and that it’s only “natural” to eliminate “inconveniences” such as “vermin” which impede “modern life” in a capitalistic society. Capturing the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside Kaneko’s existential fable is filled with a quiet unease in the ambivalent relationship between man and landscape but also in the solipsistic struggle for survival that all too often defines human relationships. 


The Albino’s Trees streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shell and Joint (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2019)

A capsule hotel is a contradictory space, a hub for compartmentalised pods which are nevertheless joined to form one greater whole. The people who frequent them are usually looking for confined private spaces as if cocooning themselves before emerging as something new, or at least renewed, yet the hotel at the centre of Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint is slightly different, a noticeably upscale take on convenience with its stylishly modernist design and well appointed spaces from showering facilities to saunas. It is also, it seems, at the nexus of life and death as its bored receptionists, childhood friends, debate what it is to live and what it is to die. 

Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), the female receptionist, has considered suicide many times but continues to survive. She attributes her death urge not to existential despair but to brain-altering bacteria and is certain that a vaccine will eventually be found for suicidal impulses. While her deskmate Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) is struck by the miracle of existence, Sakamoto thinks his tendency to adopt a cosmic perspective is a just a way of dealing with his fear of death in rejecting its immediacy. Her suicide attempts are not a way of affirming her existence and she has no desire to become something just to prove she exists, nor does she see the point in needing to achieve. Just as in her bacterial theory, she rejects her own agency and represents a kind of continuous passivity that is, ironically, the quality Nitobe had admired in the accidentally acquired beauty of the pseudoscorpion. 

This essential divide is mirrored in the various conversations between women which recur throughout the film and mostly revolve around their exasperation with the often selfish immediacy of the male sex drive. The creepy “mad scientist” starts inappropriate conversations about sperm counts and his colleague’s impending marriage, offering to loan him some of his apparently prime stock to vicariously father a child with the man’s “cute” fiancée who, in a later conversation with another female researcher, expresses her ambivalence towards the marriage, like Sakamoto passively going with the flow, because men are like caterpillars permanently stuck in the malting phase. Her colleague agrees and offers her “men are idiots” theory which is immediately proved by the male scientists failing to move a box through a doorway. 

A middle-aged woman, meanwhile, recounts the process of breaking up with her five boyfriends who span the acceptable age range from vital, inexperienced teenager to passionate old age through the solipsistic, insecure self-obsessed middle-aged man but her greatest thrill lies in the negation of the physical, remarking that “ultimately eroticism is all mental” while suggesting the ephiphany has made her life worth living. On the other hand, a young man is terrorised in a sauna by a strange guy claiming that he is actually a cicada and simultaneously confiding in him about the strength of his erection along with the obsession it provokes to find a suitable hole in which to insert it. 

“What’s the deal with leaving offspring?” another of the women asks, seemingly over the idea of reproduction. The constant obsession with crustacea culminates in a butoh dance sequence in which lobsters spill their eggs down the stairs of an empty building (much to the consternation of an OL sitting below and, eventually, the security team) while other strange guests tell stories of women who underwent immaculate conception only to be drawn to the water where hundreds of tiny crab-like creatures made a temporary exit. The urge to reproduce, however, necessarily returns us to death and the idea of composition. The melancholy story of a Finnish woman drawn to the hotel because of its similarity to a beehive meditates on the sorrow of those left behind while a fly and a mite mourn their cockroach friend by wondering what happens to his dream now that he has died only to realise that because he told them about it, it now lives on with them. Nitobe wonders what the corruption of the body in death means for the soul and for human dignity, while the images Hirabayashi leaves us with are of a corpse slowly suppurating until only a scattered skeleton remains. Such is life, he seems to say. Life is itself surreal, something which Hirabayashi captures in his absurdist skits of the variously living as they pass through the strange hotel and then, presumably, make their exits towards who knows what in the great cycle of existence.


Shell and Joint streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s Japan Cuts!

International trailer (dialogue free)