Japan Cuts: The Shell Collector


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Tsubota Yoshifumi’s film is based on a short story of the same name, written by Anthony Doerr and published in 2002 in his debut collection of tales. The story revolves around the titular character who remains nameless and is simply referred to as the ‘Professor’ (Lily Franky). Though his past of working at a university is mentioned, not much else is revealed of that past and how/why he is on an island by himself. His only company is a radio. When he first turns it on, it emits news of an ongoing disease that has been gripping the country for a year, for which causes and/or treatments remain unknown. Additionally, it shares how joint military exercises will resume with the United States in Okinawa. Like a moral conscience reporting on the (in-crisis) state of the world, later in the film it also shares news of whales and dolphins washing up on the shore in great numbers, possibly due to sonar use by the military. The film thus has an ambivalent temporal quality of being plausibly set in the present as well as in a post-apocalyptic future, as it takes place mainly on the island like a last refuge for humans. The story even feels like it is set in non-time; so isolated and inward is the Professor’s world of shell collecting, enhanced by his blindness, even when occasionally a man arrives on the beach to deliver supplies to him or he finds a woman washed up on the shore. With its dissonant soundtrack, gorgeous imagery that sometimes borders on the abstract, and loose-fitting narrative (recalling on some level the eerie, discordant ambience of Teshigahara Hiroshi’s existentially inquiring features of the 1960s), the film is a striking foray into not only the mystery of sea life but perhaps above all of human behaviour, with the shell as the narrative and visual pivot linking the two.

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The Professor, too, is like the very thing that he collects for scientific purposes. One of the film’s hypnotic recurring images (part of a dream sequence or the film in future perfect tense?) is of him underwater, seated on a chair on the ocean floor. He is slightly confused but not in a panic about where he finds himself. Additionally, his intermittent voiceover throughout the film betrays his knowledge about shells transforming into thinking almost like the organism that he scrutinises. He therefore also links the enigmatic beauty of underwater flora/fauna and the equally enigmatic yet sometimes not so beautiful world of humans, or is caught between being equipped to understand shells, almost at an ontological level, and being human, but unable to entirely change from his current state into the other. On the one hand, he is often on the shoreline or in the water, looking for shells — and physically merging with the environment, especially with the rock formations. On the other hand, early in the film, a series of close-ups concentrates on his methodical process of cleaning shells (of their occupants) and his tools, like a coloniser imposing a surgical will on the locals. Yet the irony is that his very position between water and land, shell and human form, is what ends up forcing him to change habitats, due to two discoveries on the beach.

One of these discoveries is a woman, Izumi (Terajima Shinobu) who is washed up on the shore and gripped by the same disease of which the radio speaks. Through their conversations while she remains in the throes of the disease, they reveal themselves about each other to each other: he has been on the island for five years, in isolation, collecting shells; she was formerly a painter, until the disease took hold of her, resulting in paralysis of her right hand. Unlike the Professor, Izumi explicitly compares herself to a shell, but a low-level one emptied of life.

Crucially, the other discovery is a poisonous cone shell, which becomes the miraculous cure of Izumi’s paralysis and emptied sense of life instead of being the death of her when it stings her. The morning after finding her stung and lain on the floor, she is different, vibrant, and erect; the latter word especially describes the resurgence of both her artistic and sexual drive, imposed on the Professor’s living space and his body. Though she leaves the island once she has regained her sense of self — no longer a shell and returned to her human form — her recovery has a long-term effect that turns his world upside-down, so that her rearranging of his workspace before she leaves the island becomes an extended metaphor for it.

Though a crisis of change right at his feet instead of simply hearing about it on the radio develops as a result of Izumi’s cure and technically intensifies the film’s drama, paradoxically the film loses a certain alluring intensity during the last third of the running time. The spell of isolation and non-time breaks and the film splashes into the historical world as one knows it, which becomes the focus for a while instead of the Professor. Though it is never really a manifesto on ecological preservation, to its credit, a few images alluding to real-life issues that go beyond the character of the Professor and his life are presented in an almost otherworldly manner that reignites that aforementioned spell: a small crab crawling on the sand attached to a plastic bottle or the disturbingly beautiful, painterly near-overhead shot of the clear water and sand of the island stained with red when visitors to the island kill a bird for food.


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.