Over the years, the releases from Animeigo's 'other' line of Japanese films (as opposed to the chanbara and jidaigeki classics they're known for) have always been top quality. From the cornball but touching 'Tora-san' comedies to the bleak tragedy of 'Black Rain', they've always represented some of the best films Japan has to offer. We have to admit, though, that we didn't know what to expect when we received "The Clone Returns Home" (2009). Sure, it won many awards-it was the 2006 winner of the Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker’s Award, the Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (and 24+ others), the Winner for Best Visual Achievement at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, and the Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival for Best Cinematography. However, over the years we've found mainstream critics to be about as reliable as a Fox News broadcast or Mark Dacascos History Channel Special. Animeigo's synopsis promised an SF film that wasn't really SF, but that used the medium as a vehicle to examine the mysteries of human existence. Would 'Clone' prove to merit its accolades, or like its central character Kohei would it be consigned to the void?
The story is simplicity itself. When veteran astronaut Kanemoto falls victim to an accident during a space walk, Takahara Kohei (Oikawa Mitsuhiro) finds himself in line to receive the next mission. Under pressure from superiors, Kohei agrees to become the first 'official' subject for a cloning program (or 'life insurance', as it's termed). The process in effect manufactures a full grown version of the test subject in a 'save state', producing an exact replica complete with memories up to that point. During his mission in space, Kohei discovers the probable cause of Kanemoto's death-and falls victim to it himself. With his death, a clone is produced. There are immediate complications. The clone is fixated on a memory from Kohei's past involving his twin brother Noboru. Kohei is in effect a clone twice over-with the original being an exact twin and the clone being an exact copy of the original. When the clone escapes the research center, Professor Teshigawara is brought in an attempt to 'fix' the problems in downloading memory. Meanwhile, the clone attempts to come to terms with its existence-and with the mysterious spacesuit it finds as it is drawn towards Kohei's childhood home.
The film's tone is heavy with the emotional isolation and despair felt by virtually all the characters. This is reflected both in the film's environments and in the performances of the actors. Characters wander through the vast emptiness of the cold chrome and glass of the research center, almost always alone. The wreckage of Kohei's childhood home reflects the state of his emotions as well. The film has a very deliberate pace (putting it mildly) and indulges in the extremely lengthy takes that Japanese directors are known for. This actually works in the film's favor, accentuating the remoteness and isolation. The only warm space in the film is Kohei's childhood home in flashbacks-and even that is short lived. Everyone in the film seems guilty of something. Kageyama is the administrator of the cloning project. As indicated both by his name (literally translated as 'Shadow Mountain') and the actor playing him (Shimada Kyusaku, who played a similar 'soulless bureaucrat' role in "The Princess Blade"), Kageyama lives only for the project and isn't above arranging for the early exit of a test subject. Rather than the scientists, he's the real Frankenstein behind the creation of artificial life. Professor Teshigawara (Shinagawa Toru) seems benign by Kageyama's standards, but he has been guilty of unsanctioned cloning and sees Kohei as little more than a test case for a theory. Kohei makes a deliberate decision to not inform his wife Tokie (Nagasaku Hiromi) of the cloning program, leaving her to be shocked, anguished, and heartbroken when the clone is unveiled. And of course Kohei feels guilt over what happened to his twin Noboru many years ago. The air of isolation, coldness, and detachment gives the scenes with emotion a much greater impact. The simple appearance of dead astronaut Kanemoto's mother at a protest rally, silently clutching a framed photograph of her son, speaks volumes-as does a scene late in the film where a grown Kohei enters a door to rejoin his mother and brother, with the shoji sliding shut behind him.
Kohei's relationship with his mother and brother Noboru is integral to the story. Early in the film, his mother Yoko (Ishida Eri) lies dying in a hospital bed. This is where we learn of Kohei's childhood and his twin brother Noboru. They engage in the typical twin antics of pretending to be the other one and trying to weasel out of trouble by blaming their sibling. The passing of his mother, her desire for him to live on no matter what the cost, and the incident with his brother play a big part in Kohei's decision to become the first cloning subject. Kohei has never quite come to terms with his youth, and in effect the decision to have himself cloned is another way to avoid facing it. However, the repressed memories prove to be too much for the clone, becoming the focus of his existence and setting him on a path to come to terms with them.
One of the more interesting concepts raised by the film is that of 'resonance'-a theory proposed by Professor Teshigawara. He believes that when the original being dies, its 'soul' or 'spirit' attaches itself as a sort of 'guardian spirit' to the cloned body. This is in keeping with traditional Shinto thought-you could call it a kami for the new age. Teshigawara himself has some experience with the phenomenon, and his encounter with his dead granddaughter is one of the most touching scenes in the film-made all the more tragic by the fact that Teshigawara is oblivious to it. In the film 'resonance' manifests itself through an accompanying 'ringing' sound when the guardian spirit might be near. The same ringing sound was heard earlier in the film when Kohei's mother produces it by running her finger around the edge of a half filled water glass, and perhaps this is why it becomes the Kohei clone's 'cue' for the appearance of the original's kami. But what if there isn't just one clone? What if there are two or three? Will the later ones find themselves bereft of the original's spirit? The film gives no easy answers, although a scene at the ruins of Kohei's childhood home hints that the lot of the clones might not be entirely hopeless-and the reappearance of an old injury gives hope that the replicant might indeed not be abandoned by the heavens.
Once again, Animeigo has produced a spot-on translation. Subtitles are also color coded for scenes when multiple characters are conversing where it would usually be difficult to determine who was talking. The extras are headed by a lengthy 'Making Of' featurette. While most 'making ofs' focus on special effects, CGI, and makeup, this one largely focuses on Director Nakajima Kanji's efforts to coerce the performance he's looking for out of his cast members, both veteran and young (in the case of the Tsukamoto twins, who play the young Kohei and Noboru). Most interesting are his efforts working with lead actor Oikawa, who's a well known and flamboyant actor and musician in Japan known to his fans as 'Michee'-getting Oikawa to dial back his on-stage persona to portray the introspective and quiet Kohei was one of the director's biggest concerns. Interviews with the other actors bring insights into their characters. Beyond the 'Making Of'', extras are light. There are a couple of trailers (Clone's film festival trailer along with "The Ballad of Narayama"), three short bios of Oikawa, Nakajima, and Executive Producer Wim Wenders, an image gallery, and program notes (only about three, but to be fair a movie set in the present doesn't require the cultural notes that the chanbara films Animeigo usually releases do).
The Clone Returns Home is a low-key film for those times when you're in a contemplative mood. If you're looking for SF action, you'll be disappointed. While ostensibly a movie about technology, the issues it raises about the nature of identity, the presence of a soul, and the far-reaching effects of childhood trauma are universal. At its heart, The Clone Returns Home is a modern day ghost story with overtures of the Frankenstein legend-all done in a non-sensationalistic and true to life manner. The moral implications of rapidly evolving technology are brought home with an emotional impact. You can buy "The Clone Returns Home" directly from Animeigo at a discount or through Amazon.
All images © 2008 The Clone Returns Home Film Partners.