Rotterdam programmers always had a knack for screening “weird” Japanese films, as in the case of Akira Ikeda for example. “Shell and Joint” definitely follows that “legacy”.
The film comprises of a series of vignettes, where various character interact, with a capsule hotel, insects and a number of existential topics providing the connection among them. The main sketch revolves around two reception attendants, a man and a woman who happen to be childhood friends, who talk about suicide in a rather surrealistic way, since the woman has made multiple attempts herself, but blames it all on bacteria that control her mind.
Apart from them, the sauna room in the hotel is a recurring setting, where a number of people discuss mostly about sex, men for their erection and women for the perversions of men and their performances in bed. Other sketches include a couple of beekeepers who talk about their marriage, sex and death, puppetry where three different bugs discuss the fact that people always try to kill them, a number of people who move in and close to a river, a couple that has sex in a field and a plethora of others. Probably the most impressive is a recurring sequence of three female dancers who perform inside a building bare-breasted, before they unleash a series of balls from their skirts in some stairs, probably mimicking insects in some way.
Isamu Hirabayashi uses these quite humoristic sketches in order to make a number of comments regarding suicide and death in general, sex, relationships, and most of all, insects, who seem to dominate the narrative in a number of ways. The result is quite funny in a quirky, Japanese way, the minimal cinematography, mostly featuring steady shots for each segment, is quite fitting, while the mostly industrial music by Watanabe Takahashi adds a sentiment of danger to a number of scenes.
However, there is a limit to how far these narrative elements (surrealism, humor, quirkiness, absurd but interesting dialogue, different sequences) can get a movie, and Isamu definitely goes over, since the movie lasts for 154 minutes, making quite difficult to follow after a fashion. “Shell and Joint” is the first full feature effort of Hirabayashi, and he seems to have fallen in one of the most common trap for directors who have shot many shorts before their first feature. Instead of coming up with a compact, single story-narrative, he has come up with a number of short narratives that he tried to connect somehow, and inevitably, he failed, to a degree at least, even if he actually seems to embrace his tactic. That the cast comprises of 50 actors is a testament to the fact, despite a number of them being quite good in their parts, chiefly Mariko Tsutsui and Keisuke Horibe who play the front desk attendants.
There is artistry and many good ideas in “Shell and Joint” and there are moments that are bound to make the audience laugh; not, however, to a degree that justifies the duration of the film, which is unfortunate, because Hirabayashi seems to have both good ideas and proper command of the technical aspect of the medium.