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)

Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

b5_olNames are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.