IFFR 2020 Review: Isamu Hirabayashi’s ‘Shell and Joint’

Shell and Joint 2019 Movie - Film Review

For the fifth year in a row, Festival Scope and IFF Rotterdam are thrilled to present a selection of new and emerging talents to the screens of film lovers worldwide. The festival aims to promote the work of tomorrow’s talent, celebrate daring cinema and strengthen the impact of independent film.

Eros and Thanatos have long been interconnected in both psychological theories and literary works. What happens when we bring insects into the picture, though? Japanese writer-director Hirabayashi Isamu tries to answer the question by painting a scenario where sex, death and arthropods cross paths in many different ways. With Hirabayashi also serving as editor and cinematographer, Shell and Joint (2019) is a one-man production (featuring an ensemble cast) that initially seems like a massive collection of short films stitched together on a quirky veneer. 

Looking back at this 154-minute-long film, the fabric is indeed seamlessly sewn. Characters recur in different vignettes, and every scene carries an additional piece of the puzzle that can either illuminate or complicate the audience’s understanding of the whole. To call Shell and Joint conceptual isn’t a nod to any kind of niche circle, nor is it a way to make it seem unapproachable. Rather, it’s a fair way to acknowledge that Hirabayashi has consciously made a film that could turn away some but attract others, especially those who’d like to bathe in an absurdist sun. Plot-wise, Shell and Joint doesn’t follow a linear course but instead presents many tableaux characterised by a minimalist setting, tight philosophical/existential-laden conversations and a firm, static frame to encapsulate them all.

Shell and Joint Movie Film

What else keeps all these elements together? Common to many of the characters, it’s the film’s main setting: a Japanese capsule hotel where the seemingly lead couple works and where many of the other types stay the night. Attempting a more detailed synopsis would prove equally fruitless and unsatisfactory, as Shell and Joint thrives in being carefully discovered by peeling away one layer after the other. Suffice it to say, viewers will be in for puppet insects disserting about intra-species discrimination, men dealing with unwelcomed erections in a sauna, women openly talking about their rich sexual lives among friends and one of the most cerebrally erotic, slow-burn, one-sided romance of all times.

Filtering through the whole film is the constant reminder that death is only a step away from us — that we, as humans, are perishable beings fixating on proving our existence hence stupidly trying to think of ourselves as irreplaceable and significant. Men, in particular, seem to have gotten the short end of the stick here. Sketch after sketch, they’re often cheerfully ridiculed for their instinctual — or let’s say physical — crave for sexual arousal and then chastised by the caustic and witty comments of their female counterparts. Women, on the other hand, are never depicted as prudish, sexless beings ready to prove themselves superior to men. Instead, they too have desires and also have sex, only they don’t seem to be driven by a sexual urge. As much as this characterisation might feel cliché and simplistic, it works in relation to how Shell and Joint humanises insects while insectifying humans. We live, we reproduce and, eventually, we die. So, let’s strip ourselves of our civilised and intellectual shells and we’ll reach the core of our animal heart. Ultimately, that’s all Hirabayashi seems to suggest.

Check out Shell and Joint at Festival Scope’s IFFR Bright Future showcase HERE.

Ren Scateni (@whateverren) is a freelance film journalist based in Edinburgh. They have written for MUBI, Little White Lies, Girls on Tops and other outlets.