May 14, 2020
The Discarnates – Japan, 1988
The central character in Obayashi Nobuhiko’s well-directed 1988 film The Discarnates, 40-year-old Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama), is having a bad day – check that, a bad month. No, check that, too. It’s is much more accurate to say that he has had a hard twenty-eight years, for while he has succeeded professionally – he is a well-respected TV writer – his personal life is in tatters. We first see him sitting alone in a nearly vacant apartment complex in Tokyo watching a recording of a television show he wrote. Playing is a scene in which a woman lies dying in a hospital bed, an emotionally distraught young man by her side. It is the kind of scene that should bring tears to the eyes or make viewers marvel at the performances of the lead actors. Alas, all Hidemi cares about is that his preferred choice of background music was omitted from the scene. Later that evening, one of his co-workers – and perhaps the only real friend he has – informs him that the two of them can no longer work together. The reason: He loves Hidemi’s ex-wife and intends to pursue her now that their divorce is final. You know what they say about friends like these.
And then a series of increasingly unusual events occurs. That night, a slightly drunk, socially awkward female tenant, one who has an uncanny ability to flawlessly recite sentimental lines from Hidemi’s TV shows, appears outside his door looking for companionship. (She is rebuffed.) The next day, a subway train suddenly thunders its way along a track that has been out of use for some time, almost running over Hidemi in the process. Then after announcing that he is going home, Hidemi abruptly finds himself heading instead to Asakusa, his childhood home, as if drawn there by some internal need for the familiar. Interestingly, the setting does wonders for his mood, this despite frequent interruptions by men offering him the services of barely legal members of the opposite sex. At a local theater advertising “Vaudeville,” a voice in the crowd startles him. “Father!” we hear him think. Then he adds, “Impossible!” Yet there the man is, turning around, smiling at him, and saying, “Let’s go.” A moment later, it’s “Why not go to my place?” Personally, I could think of a few reasons why that would be a bad idea, but Hidemi has his own reasoning – The man’s simply too polite to reject. Never mind that his parents died when he was just twelve years of age.
If that last part seems peculiar, there’s a reason for that: Simply put, most people would likely react somewhat differently to a possible sighting of the undead - think Bill Murray’s priceless expression during his first job as a Ghostbuster – and a calmer, much more accepting response may strike Western viewers as inappropriate. I remarked as much when I reviewed Yasuo Furuhata’s 1999 film Poppoya, in which a man simply remarks, “So, you’re a ghost” upon being told of the death some years earlier of the young girl he is engaged in a conversation with. Fortunately, Hidemi’s reaction is somewhat more natural. We hear him questioning his eyes, and during their first reunion, there is an unease that never completely leaves him. There are also ample times when he doubts the reliability of his memories, especially after a picture he took of his parents shows a low-lying table entirely devoid of people.
In most American films about ghosts – at least those not solidly a part of the horror genre – there is a purpose for celestial appearances. Not so here. By the end of the film, I was not at all certain what had brought the ghosts back other than an extremely powerful emotional longing to see their son once again, but even that is only really hinted at in one scene. I half-expected the ghosts to bring up the fact that Hidemi seems to be walking through life half dead, but they appear ignorant of this fact, which implies that they have not been monitoring him all these years. So, where have they been, and why did they take so long to return? We never get an answer, and because I expected one, the film felt less rewarding than, for example, Jerry Zucker’s Ghost, which came out two years later than this one. Having said that, the film has an intriguing plotline concerning the physical toll that communing with ghosts exacts on the human body, and it allows for a third, much more horrible explanation for the ghosts’ presence. Maybe they are here to take Hidemi away.
I haven’t mentioned much about the visitor to Hidemi’s apartment, for to do so would be to reveal too much. Suffice to say, she reappears, this time finding Hidemi much more receptive to her advances. Love – or perhaps it is best to describe it as an emotional dependency – blossoms, and her reactions to Hidemi’s physical changes are interesting, to say the least. She is well played by Atsuko Kawata. Also deserving of praise are Kumiko Akiyoshi and Tsurutaro Kataoka, who play Hidemi’s mother and father respectively. They are entirely believable as ghosts who died young and traditional, and have remained so in the afterlife. Absent from their faces is the weariness that so dominates Hidemi’s.
The Discarnates ends with a scene of surprising power. It does not provide all of the answers you might have by then, but such is life. With The Discarnates, Obayashi has given us a look into an event that Asian films and literature are far more likely to present as being somewhat normal. Ghosts exist. The dead can return. They may linger here out of love; sometimes their motivation is much less benevolent. But sometimes they just appear. There doesn’t always have to be more to it than that. (on DVD in Region 3)
*The Discarnates is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*The film ranked #3 on film magazine Kinema Junpo’s list of the best films of 1988.