If the whole world were otaku, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart ponders, who would be an insider?
"Je ne suis pas un handicapé. Je suis un mutant."—Jean-Dominique Bauby
Perhaps you've heard of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly despite the inability to move or talk. His story came to the world's attention through Locked-In Syndrome, a documentary for French television by Jean-Jacques Beineix (Betty Blue). Now you can see that documentary as part of The Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection. What won't sink in until you actually watch is that it's only a short, and Otaku, a look at Japanese outsiders, is actually the main feature on the disc of shorter films.
Locked-In Syndrome tells the story of French Elle editor Bauby, who was left paralyzed by a massive stroke. "Unable to speak or move, he has only one way to communicate," the narrator tells us, "by flicking his left eyelid." An assistant painstakingly writes down his messages as he blinks them out.
Locked-In shows us life from Bauby's perspective by using his words as narration over scenes from his daily existence. The vignettes demonstrate that his writer's mind is still sharp. He describes his situation with poetic grace with observations like "My old life still burns in me but is gradually reduced to the ashes of memory." Although he's mostly paralyzed, there's a slight twitch as meals—real food rather than the IV tube that nourishes Bauby—are served that reminds the viewer of Bauby's longing for normal existence. His struggles are visible as he tries to say a word or make even the slightest motion beyond that blink, the effort coming despite great pain. The directorial flourishes, when they come, are memorable, but the scene in which a double exposure makes it appear that Bauby's spirit is roaming the hospital halls doesn't quite achieve the haunting feeling of Bauby's life just unfolding on the screen. Fortunately, those flourishes are kept to a minimum.
"What is an otaku? Someone who has a hobby which is noticeable, who's a fanatic, someone who has no friends, who's dull, who stays indoors, someone closed in on themselves and a bit suspect. Basically, someone I have no desire to get to know." Beineix defies that statement from the narration and gets to know these outsiders who stay indoors very well in Otaku. It starts with a Tokyo protest by the outsiders and then introduces various outsiders, all defined by the common thread of obsession. They range from comic book and monster nerds to motorcyclists to "survival" gamers who recreate World War II battles. There are also guys who talk to female dolls, couples into bondage, and underwear fetishists. While it's a TV documentary and there are only brief shots of naughty video games or comic books, the subject matter is quite intense at times.
During the course of Otaku, Beineix doesn't seem to judge his subjects. The documentary is leading to a conclusion, a suggestion that Japanese society has lost its goals as much as the otaku have. The narrator's conclusion—"And what about us? What do we believe in?"—seems to make it a global concern. The scene that most struck me was one of office ladies and salarymen at a Tokyo nightclub. The emphasis was on the revealing clothes the women wore as they danced on the stage. What I noticed was that I saw no one mingling and no couples dancing together. The entire crowd, in a way, was otaku.
Mr. Michel's Dog, the short fiction film that started Beineix's career, rounds out the package. "Excuse me, sir. Do you have any scraps for my dog?" Mr. Michel asks the butcher. There's no dog, but neighborhood gossip creates one. It's an amusing vignette about a fiction that becomes a reality, with a nicely ironic twist.
At first, I thought it was foul play to emphasize Locked-in Syndrome so prominently on the cover, but after viewing, I realize there's a common thread that justifies it: the human need for communication to escape isolation. Each documentary addresses that theme in some way, with Locked-in the most direct and literal. All of these films can be painful to watch because that theme touches us all in some way.
Not guilty, although Cinema Libre gets a misdemeanor for sneaky packaging.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
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