Does something have to have an ending to be meaningful or could eternity be the point? Inspired by Ken Liu’s short story, Kei Ishikawa’s near future tale Arc (Arc アーク) envisages a world without death if perhaps not for all in which bodily immortality has been achieved, but what would that mean for humanity no longer faced with mortal anxiety, how should it reorient itself in the absence of sickness or old age while the possibility of endlessness for the self has removed the urge for immortality through childbirth? These are all of course questions which have no one answer, though what the heroine finally discovers is that in the end it may be the choice itself of when to live or when to die that may lend her life at least its meaning.
Even so, hers is a particular anxiety bound up with frustrated maternity having abandoned a baby she gave birth to at 17, too afraid of the responsibility to accept it. At 19, Rina (Kyoko Yoshine) is spotted at a club by a mysterious middle-aged woman, Ema (Shinobu Terajima), who runs a revolutionary cosmetics company which has pioneered a new way of preserving the bodies of the dead turning them into uncannily lifelike mannequins with a new process known as plasticisation. To Ema’s mind, true liberation comes from accepting transience, that once life has left it the body is just an object which might be repurposed for her art but then at the same time perhaps she is attempting to hold on to something that should be released, interfering in a natural process and while intending to offer comfort to those bereaved preventing them from letting go or moving on with their lives. Her much younger brother Amane, meanwhile, actively wants to stop time while alive utilising a similar technology to halt the ageing process and overcome the tyranny of death.
In a strange way, Ema’s desire to restore a body which is no longer alive to ideal condition is also an acknowledgement of death which she believes is not the opposite of life but a necessary part of it. In overcoming the fear of death, she claims, a transcendental beauty will reveal itself. Amane meanwhile seeks to overcome death physically, but as Rina is warned his health revolution may not bring happiness to mankind not least because it exposes a persistent inequality in which eternal youth is available only to those with the means to acquire it, creating a new underclass not only of the poor but those whose bodies are not able to accept the treatment. Amane sees his creation as a dividing line in human history which will necessarily divide humanity into two groups, those who choose to join his revolution and those who do not (though interestingly he does not consider a third group who actively opposite it). Even so he sees it as a choice and accepts the right to reject immortality even going so far as to build a dedicated centre where those who choose to live a “natural” lifespan can do so in dignity and comfort.
The concept of personal choice appears to be key, Ema too replying that her decision to stick with plasticisation rather than Amane’s treatment is her right though she too eventually hits a wall in the imperfection of her craft and the depths of her grief. She tells Rina to live her life freely encouraging her to live fully in the moment, while she too is quick to remind others that the decisions are theirs to make as regards their life and death. It’s not death nor the fear of it that are the problem, but the inability to choose as Rina finally acknowledges in remarking that the ability to decide its end point gives her the means to carve the arc of her life overcoming death through full existential control having in a sense closed a circle in facing her own sense of maternal failure. Shifting from the warmth and natural beauty of a beach in summer to the dark and brutalist environments of the BodyWerks lab, and from the muted colour of Rina’s youth to the black and white of her youthful old age, Ishikawa’s near future sci-fi-inflected tale suggests it’s not so much death that frightens you but helplessness and as in all things the answer lies in autonomous choice.
Arc screens in Chicago on April 3 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (no subtitles)