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

Baradwaj Rangan
·3 min read

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.

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