What are film genres but mere indications of a film's content. They might tell you what a film is about, but they won't say anything about style, atmosphere or execution. The Clone Returns Home [Kuron wa Kokyo wo Mezasu] is classified as sci-fi and that's okay, but those expecting a bustling space adventure, alien warfare or high-tech gadgetry can stop reading right now. Nakajima is aiming for something very different. And better.
The film industry would have you believe that films are best seen on the big screen, in theaters and festivals. While this is definitely true for a certain line of movies there is no place like home to watch The Clone Returns Home. Far away from potential shuffling, babbling, ringtones, crunching, yawning or people with busy festival schedules. This film deserves to be seen as far away as possible from all those distractions. It's much better to enjoy its subtleties in a comfortable couch where one can peacefully dose of, rewind a little and fall back into that trance without bothering or being bothered.
While the premise of the film is all about cloning and accidents in space, it's just a cover for a smaller and more subtle family drama. After the short introduction where Kohei is nudged into signing a cloning agreement, the film warps back in time to show us Kohei and his little twin brother. After a seemingly harmless fishing trip things run out of hand and Kohei's brother drowns, leaving his remaining family drowning themselves in a pool full of guilt.
The "clones" in this film are more than simple seconds, they act as actual save-states. They aren't new human beings built from an identical set of genes, but true copies of a person at one point in time. When Kohei dies in space his special life insurance (as the cloning business is cleverly called) kicks in, opening a doorway to a metaphysical journey layered with soft philosophical meanderings.
Japanese cinema as a whole has been edging closer to the mainstream, Nakajima doesn't seem to care. The slow pacing here is crucial to the atmosphere in his film. Scenes are allowed to last, which isn't really all that bad as they are lusciously shot. The visuals are striking and impressive. Each and every shot is meticulously planned, often showcasing stark contrasts and toned-down color hues. The result is bleak but powerful and gripping, without losing any impact throughout the film.
The soundtrack is just as impressive. Very subtle, somewhat brooding and only occasionally expressive, perfectly blending with the images to create an entrancing atmosphere. Still, it's at its most impressive when Nakajima completely drops all sound during one of the more dramatic scenes. Pure silence spreads itself through the room when the on-screen characters are completely falling apart. Very reminiscent of a particular scene in Dolls, just as overpowering. That's how you do drama.
The film relies on only a handful of actors, but they all put in a tremendous effort. Mitsuhiro Oikawa, taking up a pretty demanding and difficult lead, is particularly strong as Kohei. When the dialogue and plot dies out in the second half of the film he has to carry both characters on his frail shoulders, but does so with impressive ease.
Some people will tell you that a certain state of mind or mood set is required to watch The Clone Returns Home, I believe the film is strong enough to evoke this mood all by itself. Still, it might not be a good idea to watch this when craving a fast-paced action flick, I'm sure you'll be dreaming or dozing off in no time.
The first part of the film is still somewhat plot-driven but once past the halfway point it leaves most dialogue and plot behind to find its own way. We follow the clones of Kohei on their own path, struggling with their own being, looking for their mutual past. Things get a little vague from here on, but this vagueness adds a mysterious layer only making it a more powerful and lasting experience.
The Clone Returns Home is one of the most impressive dramatic films I've seen in a long time. If you're looking for clear-cut answers or simple plot progression this is not a film for you. If you're looking for action or sentimental drama, stay clear. But when you're in for a prime example of Japanese drama set to a sci-fi background you're in for a real big treat. It lingers, it surprises, it impresses, and it'll leave you in a daze. Absolutely stunning stuff, definitely recommended.