Anatomy of a Paperclip (Yamamori clip koujou no atari): Rotterdam Review

"Anatomy of a Paperclip"
A deadpan, gullible-guy comedy that grows ever more endearing as the twists become more surreal.

Japanese director Akira Ikeda's second feature revolves around a man's surreal experiences while working as a wire-bending clip-maker in a smalltown factory.

With its expressionless and easily exploitable protagonist, static cinematography conducted with an understated color template, and a surreal twist based on a literal metamorphosis, Akira Ikeda's film boasts some surface similarities to the work of more established filmmakers like, say, Aki Kaurismaki or David Lynch.

But Anatomy of a Paperclip is much more than just imitation. What begins as a seemingly stagnant narrative gradually unfolds to reveal one surprise after another -- and there's still a lot that remains unexplained as things draw to a close. As the surprises escalate, the film takes on a spiritual and even political core: a visual version of a folk ode for the downtrodden forced to stay down by social forces and norms beyond their control.

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Having made his debut with Blue Monkey in 2006 -- short film Landscape to Fly (2008) is his only other work since – Ikeda's second feature has established itself as a mainstay in the festival circuit since its premiere at the PIA Film Festival, which provided the project with much technical and financial backing (and also an eventual Special Jury Prize). After traveling to Busan and then winning the top prize at Vancouver, Paperclip will make its European bow as a Hivos Tigers Competition entry at Rotterdam – just another stop of what should be an extensive international tour around indie or Asian-themed showcases.

While the film could draw comparisons with, say, Kaurismaki's Light in the Dusk or Lynch's Eraserhead, a more significant link will be to sources closer to Ikeda's home – after all, the director has said his story is based on a folk tale. But beyond this rustic reference, the film also bears kinship with Hitoshi Matsumoto, the actor-turned-filmmaker who made waves with his zany projects -- such as Big Man Japan (Dai Nipponjin, 2007) or Symbol (2009) – taking aim at the unseen powers manipulating the helpless individual, with many a comedic moment delivered in entirely surreal circumstances.

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In that context, Anatomy could easily be dubbed, "Small Man Japan." Big Man Japan's beleaguered superhero, his maximalist persona cast asunder by the pressures around him, finds a distant cousin in Anatomy's protagonist Kogure (Sakae Tokomatsu). Gangly and generous to the point of being gullible, the young man -- who wears an unexplained neck brace throughout -- works at a rural workshop making paperclips. A non-descript figure, he is continuously misidentified and bullied by his boss, is ditched midway by his colleague on a date, gets conned (and a bout of heavy food poisoning) by a hawker, and hands over his possessions and clothes to robbers -- whom he runs into repeatedly within his very small community -- without putting up the slightest resistance.

He also reconciles himself to a young woman and her father, who somehow appear at his flat and just settle in, despite not being able to communicate in their strange dialect. But it's actually because of this surprising arrival that a sense of belonging and some slight changes bubble up within Kogure's cycle of misfortune. The repetition of scenes is effective in both emphasizing the monotonous nature of life, and also in how the smallest of alterations allows a gentle progression of the individuals' audacity to defy their pre-destined lives of banality -- but small gestures that illustrate Ikeda's unwillingness to court melodrama and corny closures.

This is all accomplished through Ikeda's nuanced screenplay and also rhythmic editing, and also Ryo Daikyoji's simple soundscapes; Mamoru Yamauchi's production design also keeps this on-screen enclave of banality interesting. While clinical in its minimalist aesthetics, Anatomy offers something with a much more emotional drive.

Venue: DVD screener

Director: Akira Ikeda

Cast: Sakae Tomomatsu, Kazutoshi Kato, Yukari Hara, Toshiyuki Takahashi, Akiko An

Producer: Akira Ikeda

Screenwriter: Akira Ikeda

Cinematographer: Mizuki Osada

Editor: Akira Ikeda

Production Designer: Mamoru Yamauchi

Sound Designer: Ryo Daikyoji

Music Composer: Koji Numata and Paduco

International Sales: PIA Film Festival

In Japanese

No rating, 99 minutes