If I had to guess who director/screenwriter Kanji Nakajima’s favorite filmmaker is, I’d pick Stanley Kubrick. Nakajima’s feature, The Clone Returns Home, is a visually articulate but ultimately cold meditation on what it is that makes us human.
The story revolves around an astronaut named Kohei Takahara, played by Mitsuhiro Oikawa. Kohei is killed during a spacewalk and scientists back on Earth decide to clone him using a huge database of info collected prior to his space mission. Kohei’s memories are transferred to an adult clone with limited success. The clone doesn’t recognize Kohei’s wife and he doesn’t know that Kohei’s mother has died. To make matters worse, he’s obsessed with memories of his childhood when his twin brother died. In his confused state of mind, he escapes from the lab to search for his home, and is soon replaced by a second, more successful, clone.
Nakajima lets this story unfold very slowly. The camera doesn’t move very much and the images are left to linger even after characters have concluded the business of the script. If the film lacks anything, it’s momentum. All of the characters seem to be stuck in time and space, as if this were some sort of purgatory where they’re simply expected to wait.
Thematic imagery abounds. Water is used to represent the flow of a natural life, including its ultimate end. The scientists are presented in stark black and white rooms resembling filing cabinets while the outside world is filled with decay. These images are effective at communicating the subtext of the story, but they aren’t enough to fill in all the blanks left by Nakajima. The cold atmosphere of the film threatens to overwhelm the viewer. Nakajima and cinematographer Hideho Urata certainly understand visual contrast but they seem to have neglected contrast of the emotional sort. Even the handful of music cues are cold and detached. A smattering of warmth would go a long way toward enlivening this experience.
Pop star Mitsuhiro Oikawa does an excellent job portraying Kohei and his two clones. It’s not exactly what he does but what he doesn’t do. He just is, and that’s exactly what this film needs. This is a still-life at heart and, surprisingly, the flamboyant singer finds his center and lets it ground him in every scene.
All of the actors are excellent. It’s a pity the director never lets the audience get emotionally close to any of them. I was especially intrigued by the older scientist who’s under house arrest for illegally cloning his granddaughter. In a way, I’d have preferred to have seen his story.
I look forward to seeing what Nakajima comes up with next. He’s obviously adept at presenting complex ideas on screen. Clone is an intriguing art film but I can’t help but feel that it could have been even more. It’s available now in an excellent US release from AnimEigo and is recommended for viewers with patience. You know who you are.