Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Shell Collector

Just when you thought it was safe to walk barefoot on the beach again, the cone snails attack. You have to pick them up first, but if you don’t know they carry a stinger, they might surprise you. It turns out the cone snails are particularly potent in Yoshifumi Tsubota’s adaptation of the Anthony Doerr short story, The Shell Collector (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The blind-since-birth Professor has retreated from the world, preferring the company of his shells, just as the apocalyptic outbreak started. The degenerative disease causes paralysis of the extremities, but mostly leaves the mind intact. It is an awful curse for most of the afflicted, but particularly cruel for an artist like Izumi Yamaoka, whom the reclusive Professor finds washed up on-shore. While he nurses her back to relative health, she manages to get stung by a particularly nasty cone snail, but instead of killing her, the venom cures her.

Suddenly, Yamaoka is a brand new person, but not in a way that makes the Professor comfortable. Inspired by the visions she saw, Yamaoka wants to try the venom trip again, but he adamantly insists that would be a really bad idea. Eventually, she leaves, wiping out the subtle two-handed chemistry the film had built up. In her place slouch the thuggish island headman who strong-arms the Professor into curing his daughter, Tsutako Yuba. Next, it will be the Professor’s own son Hikari his Up With People colleagues at a suspicious NGO who start pestering him for the cure.

Doerr’s story might work on the page as an anti-science fable, but it is clunky and didactic on the screen, especially once Yamaoka makes her exit. Tsubota luxuriates in the coastal landscape, but his mood is not strong enough to overwhelm obvious pedantry, like why is it the only person who can find the life-saving shells is a blind dude who basically just sticks his hand under a rock less than a foot from the water-line, pulling them out like they were waiting for him.

At least for a while Lily Franky and Shinobu Terajima forge some mature and intriguingly complex chemistry as the Professor and the artist. Sosuke Ikematsu’s gee whiz vibe really clashes with the third act’s foreboding, but that is probably more on Tsubota than the actor. Ai Hashimoto only gets to walk around looking ethereal, but she certainly does what is asked.

Tsubota and company probably Life of Pi in mind as their benchmark, but it falls considerably short. Frankly, breaking up the delicate two-character balance simply sabotages the film. It isn’t really recommended, but it is sold out this Thursday (7/21) anyway, so skip the stand-by line and rest up for later screenings during this year’s Japan Cuts at the Japan Society, in New York’s fashionable Turtle Bay neighborhood.