In English, you usually don’t want to be compared to marine life. “Cold fish,” “shark” and “whale” are not often intended as compliments, and “come out of your shell” is commonly addressed to the anti-social.
Japanese have a somewhat different take on the undersea world. In a landmark 1959 TV drama, actor Frankie Sakai expressed a heartfelt desire to escape the pain of being human with the famous line “Watashi wa kai ni naritai” (“I want to be a shellfish”).
The professor hero of Yoshifumi Tsubota’s portentous, gorgeous “The Shell Collector” (“Sheru Korekuta”), which premiered at this year’s Rotterdam international film festival, collects shells instead of trying to squeeze himself into one, but he is also escaping something.
Based on a short story by Anthony Doerr, the film was beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa in a picturesque corner of Okinawa Prefecture. The brilliant colors and radiant light contrast sharply with Lily Franky’s protagonist, who is elderly, blind and alone on a small island.
Franky is a veteran who has played everything from salt-of-earth types to the blackest of villains, though his characters typically have a shadowy side. So does his professor, though he is an emotionally wounded introvert, which is uncommon in Franky’s oeuvre. Dedicated to his shellfish collection, to which he is constantly adding with specimens from the nearby shoreline, he is also alienated from the human race.
But disruptive forces invade the professor’s well-ordered world. The first is Izumi (Shinobu Terajima), an artist who washes up on the beach one day barely alive — and wanting to die. Her right hand paralyzed, she can no longer paint, until a nearly fatal sting from a poisonous shellfish miraculously heals the hand.
Overjoyed, Izumi paints a sexually suggestive spiral on the professor’s wall and drags him to bed. He rids himself of this importunate lover, but when the local big man arrives, with intimidating henchmen, to ask the professor to cure his ailing daughter (Ai Hashimoto) with the same poison, he can’t refuse.
Tsubota, whose one previous feature was the 2009 manga artist biopic “Miyoko” (“Miyoko Asagaya Kibun”), supplies haunting visual metaphors in the film, most strikingly the professor’s recurring dream of sitting transfixed on the ocean floor. But relation of these poetic images to the story is suggested rather than clearly stated.
Similarly sketchy is the sequence beginning with the sudden arrival of the professor’s son Hikari (Sosuke Ikematsu). The leader of an environmental NPO and a spokesman for the band of sufferers from a mysterious new illness who camp outside the door, he badgers his father for the curative poison. But the struggle between Hikari’s airy activism and the professor’s bitter quietism is short-circuited rather than fully developed.
As the blind professor, Franky impresses with his almost preternatural sensitivity to every contour of his beloved shells, every tremor of emotion from his not-so-beloved humans. By contrast, Terajima is theatrically overwrought as Izumi, which may fit her character’s tightly wound neuroticism but makes for taxing viewing. Also, as Hikari, Ikematsu is outwardly frank, while seeming calculating and manipulative. It’s a typical Ikematsu performance, if one that doesn’t make the character quite sympathetic.
For all its gauzy “one with nature” mysticism, “The Shell Collector” offers a stark object lesson in nature’s dual-faced powers. The seashells that look so fragile and lovely can both cure and kill. Somewhat like their human collectors.
Note: The international version of “The Shell Collector” features additional narration and music, as well as changes in the sound design, with the aim of making the film less ambiguous to non-Japanese audiences. It also has a masturbation scene that was cut from the Japanese version for reasons unspecified.