Shell and Joint has been doing the festival rounds, with variable success. It's one of those films that was never going to be universally loved, but it has been getting high marks from people whose opinion I value, so I was quite looking forward to it. Still, a 152-minute absurd, dry comedy, helmed by a first-time director known for making experimental shorts poses a hefty commitment one does not make lightly. It took me a while to find the right mindset and a large enough time slot to sit myself down in front of Hirabayashi's first feature film, but boy was it worth it.
I hadn't heard of Hirabayashi before I came across Shell and Joint, but clearly that's on me. He comes from an art/design background and started out directing experimental short films. Not too uncommon, apart from the fact that they were quickly picked up by established critics and have received invitations from some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world (including Cannes, Venice and Berlin). If only to say that Hirabayashi is no slouch and that his first feature film came with rather high expectations. Still, there's a big difference between making a great short film and keeping people's attention for a full 2.5 hours.
Shell and Joint certainly isn't the easiest film. It's structured entirely around a set of skits that are solely linked together by a single location: an upscale capsule hotel. The comedy is deadpan and absurd, the cinematography is stark and restrained and the conversations between characters appear to be completely nonsensical. Only when you stick with the film common themes start to emerge and a narrative concerning life, reproduction and death starts to form. Oh, and it's also about crustaceans. On the one hand, it's pretty experimental and unconventional, on the other hand the comedy is so daft that you can't help but wonder how many "serious" film fans will be able to appreciate this.
If you're looking for a conventional plot, you've picked the wrong film. If I were forced to pinpoint two main characters, it would probably be the pair sitting at the front desk of the capsule hotel. They're childhood friends and they seem to be coping with each other's banter pretty well. But even they are only featured in four or five skits. Other characters include a couple of scientists, A Finnish mother, a human cicada and three painted women. There's even a puppet theater sketch featuring a cockroach, a mite and a fly. None of these characters ever interact or cross storylines, so don't hope to see everything come together in the end either.
The cinematography is fitting and underlines the dry comedy, but it's hardly the most dynamic. The camera rarely moves and in most skits it remains entirely static. The framing is exquisite though and Hirabayashi makes great use of colors and lighting to add some visual flourish, even so some people might get annoyed with the detached, aloof visual style. Personally, I loved the cinematography here. There are many shots that burned themselves onto my retina and the visual pacing adds its fair share of comedy, but it's not going to be for everyone.
The same can be said about the score. Quite minimal, sometimes entirely absent from the film, but always used very strikingly and deliberate. Unconventional instruments and sounds create demanding soundscapes that add a lot of atmosphere and pull the film in whatever direction Hirabayashi wants to go. It's a great example of how you can accomplish a lot with very little, especially when returning motives begin to reveal their strengths. It's not something I'd buy on vinyl as I don't think it'll make much sense on its own, but within the context of the film it's a real asset.
The cast doesn't have too many familiar faces, except for Keisuke Horibe and Mariko Tsutsui, who play the desk clerks. Their deadpan performances are pretty hilarious (especially during the cockroach skit), though they get little room to make something of their roles beyond their characters' well-defined boundaries. That goes for most of the cast. There are some very funny parts and many of the actors have superb comedic timing, but the characters remain very one-dimensional as they're all played for laughs and many of them don't even have returning parts.
While this may all sound very random and incoherent (and in a way, it most definitely is), Shell and Joint has more to offer than just straightforward comedy. As weird and nonsensical as certain conversations and skits are, they all circle around common themes that start to manifest themselves as the film goes on. That still doesn't mean there are easy takeaways here, if you expect food for thought, you'll still have to do much of the heavy lifting yourself. But this setup certainly helped to get me through the second half of the film, as 150 minutes of random jokes would've been a bit much, even for me.
Shell and Joint is somewhat experimental, pretty damn funny and extremely Japanese. A stylistic and comedic masterpiece that hides its wit really well, but for those who reach the end it's impossible to miss. Hirabayashi juggles around a tricky combination of elements that makes it really hard to blatantly recommend, not in the least because it hides a whopping 152-minute runtime, but if you're feeling adventurous, and you're in the mood for something different, then Shell and Joint won't disappoint. Fingers crossed this will one day become a treasured cult favorite, it would do its accolades proud.