Review: Shell and Joint (Japan Cuts 2020)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

In my previous review, I heaped a considerable amount of praise upon a movie starring a robot and a tanuki who spend the entire runtime of an hour and twenty-four minutes just talking about stuff. Some of it is philosophical, and some of it is absurd, yet all of it is supremely entertaining, fascinating even. I also noted my concern that said description had painted a pretentious picture, but there’s something else I neglected to mention, which is how Kinta and Ginji represents everything I love about Japanese cinema. Well, next we have another film that’s filed under avant-garde by JAPAN CUTS 2020, and it too features a whole lot of talking. No robots or tanuki this time, just people, though bugs are part of the mix. Yet despite many similarities, there are stark differences, and BOY OH BOY does Shell and Joint embody everything I can’t stand about Japanese cinema.

Shell and Joint is the long-awaited feature length debut of celebrated short movie maker Isamu Hirayabashi, and after this, I now have zero desire to see any of his previous, let alone future works. Things start off super promisingly enough with an aesthetic and implied vibe that strongly evokes Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, with a hint of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The latter especially so, due to the primary setting: a capsule hotel. The film features a considerably large cast of characters, some we see regularly, like the hotel’s receptionists & certain guests, and others who are just one & done. The film’s connective tissue is arthropods; you have one of the aforementioned receptionists reading a book about bugs, a retired Yakuza thug that’s now married and they’re also both beekeepers, a girl who assumes the way to bring her dead stag beetle back is with the Lightening cable that revives her mom’s dead iPhone, a dude in a sauna who goes on and on his sexual exploits that’s actually a cicada in human form, plus a trio of bugs in bug form (they’re actually puppets) to name just a few. Anyhow, arthropods are used to compared and contrast the points made in the multitude of conversations regarding human behavior, animal behavior, the passage of life, the passage of time, the significance of existence, the insignificance of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

So why was so much talking enjoyable in the last movie and not in this one? Like I said, whereas the robot and the tanuki talked about a bunch of different things, everyone here talks about the same damn thing, and in the same tiresome “oh wow, that’s SO deep” manner that’s fine once or twice in a Japanese movie, but it gets grating after the legit thirty-fifth time. Shell and Joint does feel like the work of a director who made a name by embracing the constraints of a short run time, but ends up floundering the open waters of feature length cinema, so the only thing he can come up with is to cram thirty-five shorts’ worth of material into a single vessel… which still could have worked if they’re all about the same damn thing. By far the best part is a segment in which two women ask a third about the products her company makes, which are vibrators, if only cuz the predictable grand statement about the human condition can be excused as drunken nonsense (the one asking clearly had a ton of shrimp and white wine). I should also maybe mention how, in addition to avant-garde, Shell and Joint is also listed under erotic. Thus everyone in the movie is super horny, and it too is super boring, which might be Shell and Joint’s most egregious offense. Did I mention that it’s two hours and thirty-four fucking minutes long? Back to the subject of bugs: at a certain point I became so bored that I fired up Animal Crossing on my Switch Lite to see if I might get lucky by landing on “tarantula island” (I’m in the southern hemisphere, so no scorpions for me, given how it’s winter on my end).

I also need to mention how the handling of the end credits is something I would have normally dug, ut taken with the rest of the movie, it’s just another sign of Hirayabashi trying too damn hard to impress/be deep/be weird/who cares. In the end, I suppose it’s appropriate that the JAPAN CUTS that has one the largest amount of super quality content has what appears to be the absolute worst movie that they’ve ever offered.

Don’t waste your time and instead see Kinta and Ginji, via online rental, from July 17 to 30, by clicking this link.

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