Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint, playing at Dharamsala, is a fascinating look at life and death

Isamu Hirabayashi’s Japanese-Finnish feature debut Shell and Joint is playing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Baradwaj Rangan October 24, 2020 16:57:28 IST
Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint, playing at Dharamsala, is a fascinating look at life and death

A still from Shell and Joint. Twitter

What if suicide doesn’t arise from the desire to not live anymore? What if the impulse to kill oneself isn’t something existential, but instead, the result of a bacteria or virus?

What if “suicide” is like a cold or a fever, something that can be “cured” if scientists discover a vaccine for the micro-organism that causes one to think about this drastic step? This is a snatch of conversation we hear at the beginning of Isamu Hirabayashi’s Japanese-Finnish feature debut, Shell and Joint, which is playing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. The woman who voices these thoughts is a hotel employee who has made multiple attempts on her life. She’s clearly thought about the subject a lot.

Her name is Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), and she is talking to her male colleague (and boss), Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe). They seem to be sitting at what looks like the reception area, behind a desk. Sakamoto is a nihilist. She says, “I don’t care about becoming something to prove my existence. It wasn’t my choice to exist. But here I am. I just don’t care.” Nitobe, on the other hand, thinks a lot about existence. He thinks about how one little cell evolved over billions of years to reach a point, today, to build the computer. He thinks that life had a chance to emerge many billions of years ago, and it took advantage of it. Sakamoto thinks he fears death. “Your view of life from the cosmic perspective removes fear of death.”

The opening frames could be seen as an extension of this “cosmic perspective”. We are in what looks like a forest, in a spot surrounded by tall, thin trees. The camera is looking up, and we get time-lapse images. Clouds fly by during the day. Then, the blue space up there becomes dotted with stars, and visited by a meteor or two. In sharp contrast to this vastness, we have the hotel, where the “rooms” are like little capsules (they look about 5x5 feet) on either side of a corridor. The “lives” of the people who check in are like these capsules. They may be adjacent to one another, but they are all in their own little “capsules”.

And it’s not just humans. Nitobe, who’s a reader, marvels at the pseudoscorpion (it’s a scorpion without a tail): he calls it the most beautiful creature on earth. There are bees. There’s a woman who says she got pregnant without having sex, and her stomach began to swell faster than in “normal” pregnancies. She went to the river and sat down, and from her emerged crab-like creatures that swam away and then re-entered her. The most absurd sketch in this absurdist series of sketches may be the puppet-animated stretch where a cockroach, a fly and a mite discuss how much they resent being called “pests” and how happy humans are when they get killed.

Isamu Hirabayashis Shell and Joint playing at Dharamsala is a fascinating look at life and death

A still from Shell and Joint. Twitter

And we link back to Sakamoto’s obsession with death. The director, thus, creates a marvellous levelling ground for all of creation, from humans to bugs. All of creation undergoes the cycle of life and death. The hotel could represent creation as a whole, and those capsule-rooms are each species — or something like that. In a statement, Isamu Hirabayashi said he wants to ask the big questions: “What is the shape or condition of life? And conversely, of death?” Maybe death is the more natural and common condition, while life is a short trip that ends with death. And that may explain the freewheeling structure of the film, where each sketch “dies” and a new one is “born” to take its place. The director says he wanted to be free of “the usual conventions of cinematic structure... If life is freedom, so is art”.

Shell and Joint is my first Isamu Hirabayashi film, and when I scoured the web for details of his work, I found this note about Textism, one of this director’s shorts that Tony Rayns curated in 2004 for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Rayns called the film “heroically original”, and compared Hirabayashi’s achievement to what Borges did with the short-fiction form. “The film’s concision and its seemingly limitless poetic allusiveness match an encyclopaedic range of reference, a Joycean ability to inhabit different voices and a philosophical ear for the interconnectedness of the sacred and the profane.” Except the word “concision” (Shell and Joint runs a little over two-and-a-half hours), everything else fits.

A woman being pressured by her digestive system runs to a grassy area and relieves herself. A little later, two “detectives” examine the deposit. It’s clearly not by a dog. Should they take a sample? It’s no more than 2 to 3 hours old. It’s a “nice, long shit”, and it has maggots. (There! It’s a reference another kind of “creation.) One of them asks the other, “With this shape, do you suppose the person was facing this way?” But no. “Judging by the urine spray, I’d guess it was this (other) way.” Oh, and the woman, they conclude, wiped herself with leaves.

Does it get a bit much at times? Perhaps. When two women, after a shower, talk about mosquitoes and how “they suck blood as nutrients for their eggs”, I wondered if the man/creature philosophising was being hammered home a bit too hard. But afterwards, one of them says it’s going to be difficult to kill the mosquito, because “she” (i.e. the mosquito) is now pregnant. The line is tossed off casually, but the sentiment moved me for some reason. I’ve killed plenty of mosquitoes, but I’ve never thought about one of them being a pregnant mother-mosquito!

On and on it goes, about life, death, shit, sex, life, death, shit, sex. The dialogues are endlessly fascinating, and I’ll leave you with one, between Sakamoto and Nitobe, the first people we met in the movie. He muses that souls must decompose the same way bodies do. Otherwise, there’d be billions of souls around. Hindus may differ, as they believe souls are “eternal” things that simply acquire new bodies, but it may not be so clear-cut with the rest of the world. There’s a reason the camera remains static throughout. In other words, it doesn’t “talk”, and it doesn’t give a point of view. It simply observes. You could say the same about the film and what it does with the marvel of creation.

Shell and Joint was screened at the virtual edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival 2020.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor (South), Film Companion.

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