Running time: 111 mins
Director: Takahiko Akiyama
Starring: Masatoshi Nakamura, Kanata Hongo, Mikako Tabe
With the recent success of Mostow’s Surrogates, and the unparalleled reception of Cameron’s Avatar, the concept of a surrogate existence outside of a human form has been reintroduced cinematically to a Western audience. Prior to this, in 2005, Akiyama released Hinokio, a farsighted film which posed the apt question: can you live your life through technology?
Satoru is an isolated 11-year-old boy. Confined to a wheelchair after a serious car crash, which killed his mother, he refuses to leave his room. His father, a robotics manufacturer, creates for him a robot, which he can control and communicate through via a station in his room. The purpose of this robot is that Satoru might go to school again and have some semblance of a life - albeit through robotic lenses.
As Satoru (Hongo) starts piloting his new robot - nicknamed by his fellow students ‘Hinokio’ due to the Hinoki cyprus wood which makes up part of its structure, and the similarity of the circumstances to Pinocchio - he soon begins to make friends in unusual ways, and experience life again through the safety and distance of the robot, even interacting - even if bitterly - with his father Kaoru (Nakamura), whom he hasn’t spoken to since his mother’s death a year previously.
As the film progresses, and love blossoms with tomboy Jun, Satoru must decide if his motives for remaining hidden behind the robot are valid or if they are driven by fear…
Hinokio was Akiyama’s directorial debut, with his career up to this point spent as a visual art director for well known richly visual work like Final Fantasy. His previous award-winning experience in visual effects served him well, as Hinokio benefits enormously from his eye for detail. Being both screenwriter and director it is understandable that Akiyama’s grounding in visual, and primarily computer game graphics would be part of the movie. The subplot of the movie is the effect of the mysterious, all consuming role play video game Purgatory, which simultaneously adds and detracts from the film. Its addition gives well thought out sequences of graphics, yet, at the same time, detracts from an insightful and poignant story with unnecessary plot convolutions. It seemed as if Akiyama’s use of the game was a way to add action into a film that didn’t need it.
The direction, though, is creative and inspired. Akiyama’s use of Hinokio’s perspective throughout portions of his scenes brings the audience a more intimate view of Saturo’s life. Shooting through a fish-eye lens to give the view through the robot’s eyes takes the viewer out of the filmic moment and instead into a computer simulation. The lenses give a considerably more vibrant colour than the ‘real’ world outside of them. The contrast when the camera goes back to the wide shot is enhanced by the grey tones which are utilised. Akiyama’s direction focuses very much on point of view shots of Saturo and Hinokio, often positioning cameras behind the robot and over-the-shoulder to allow an enhanced awareness of the reaction of his fellow pupils, or a perspective on the physical difference between Hinokio and its classmates.
Visually the cinematography is exceptional, creating overwhelmingly complicated and rewarding shot sequences and making use of captivating light. There is one particularly beautiful scene between Hinokio and Saturo’s father who has come to fix him. The poignant scene as Saturo speaks of his feelings to his father through Hinokio for the first time in a year takes place in front of a burning sunset, which moves, systematically obscuring and revealing the characters causing them to be illuminated with the dying light.
The sound of the film is split between the upbeat pop songs which accompany Hinokio’s escapades and the stark diagetic sound which accompanies forays into Saturo’s home. His wheelchair moving, the sound of typing and the fridge opening is often the only sound which accompanies the deafening silence. Choosing not to speak, his messages to his father are relayed in notes he leaves outside of the door, despite Kaoru imploring Saturo to communicate with him. The contrast between the two different uses of sound contrasts well - it emphasises the imposed solitude Saturo has chosen for himself, and the joy of his new friendships as he uses Hinokio.
The performances are well considered. With such a young cast there is often a tendency to overact yet they are very restrained. Hongo’s performance of the often expressionless Saturo is captivating. It is possible to feel the hopelessness of the character that has imposed his own hikikomori in his bedroom. A special mention must be given to Nakamura, whose depiction of Kaoru - the father unable to break his son’s isolated captivity - is superb.
Released a year after Facebook, a year after the current prolific incarnation of World Of Warcraft, and two years after Second Life, the film taps into an audience who are already utilising their own avatars in their technological lives. The repeated mention of ‘Purgatory’, and its drug like influence on some of the children who disappear for days to play it, and the references to the suspension of the soul both in the game and outside of it, points to a larger message Akiyama is relaying.
Hinokio, although aimed at children and young people, raises a point which is applicable to all watchers, even with the advances in technology - there is no substitute for human interaction. Conversely it took a robot to fully emphasise the power of humanity.
It is hard to believe Hinokio is Akiyama’s directorial debut. It is a beautiful, poignantly executed work which celebrates life as much as it deals with death. A story which is full of heart, even if it is robotic.
Reviewed by Dawn H.
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