Who’s Camus Anyway?

On the surface, Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s Who’s Camus Anyway? (2005)–recently released on DVD by Film Movement–is a breezy, playfully cineliterate account of a group of Tokyo university students making a movie. And while it’s chock full of film references (Altman, Tarantino, the French New Wave), colorful characters, and social eccentricities, its true sophistication emerges gradually, posing complex questions about the roles of fantasy, identity, and volition in modern life.

The film is Yanagimachi’s first after a ten-year hiatus; in the interim he taught a university course for three years, an experience that informs the sociological fabric of the film. And while it’s a highly observant portrait of Japanese youth and university culture, Yanagimachi’s renowned tendency to describe rather than ascribe keeps the film’s enigmas and nuances alive, waiting to be plundered. “The movie is a portrayal of reality,” he has said. “I had no intention to protest or praise.”

A recently widowed professor assigns his students a subject based on a 2000 murder case in which a 17-year-old boy randomly killed an elderly woman simply for the experience. Their resulting script–“The Bored Murderer”–inspires one student, assistant director Kiyoko (Ai Maeda), to reflect upon Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1946) with its story of a detached and unemotional killer, but director Naoki (Shuji Kashiwabara) seems intent on making an emotionally obvious movie, and star Ikeda (Hideo Nakaizumi) shrugs confusingly, “Cam-moo?” The students seem too obsessed with movies, pop culture, saakuru activity clubs (everything from hip-hop dance to Spanish guitar to mime), and–most of all–their interrelated romantic lives to engage much else.

Yanagimachi brilliantly establishes this hermetic world in a nearly seven-minute opening tracking shot that winds its way through the university campus, connecting various people and groups. At one point, two film students compare the tracking shot lengths in Touch of Evil (1958) and The Player (1992), but Yanagimachi isn’t merely being cute for the cinephiles; like Mizoguchi (whose long shots one student contends “are never for show”), he’s carefully emphasizing the interconnected relationships of these characters in a fluid manner.

Similarly, the film subtly uses the university’s architecture in evocative ways; the student staff room and studio sit atop a long flight of stairs on which various characters continually meet and converse throughout the film; combined with a climbing wall that figures prominently in one scene and a rooftop and ladder that figure in another, Yanagimachi uses vertical space as a metaphor for the rising aspirations and risky personal tensions of the various characters.

The professor (Hirotaro Honda) and an emotionally fragile student named Yukari (Hinano Yoshikawa) are obsessed with disinterested lovers; Yukari trails Naoki wherever he goes, whining about the future of their five-year relationship, but Naoki has become disenchanted. The students jokingly nickname the professor and Yukari “Aschenbach” and “AdËle” after the romantic obsessives in Death in Venice (1971) and The Story of AdËle H. (1975), respectively, socially marginalizing them but never hesitating to utilize their assistance. “Someone should tell our director to watch [Truffaut’s film] to learn about women,” one student suggests, blurring a line between fantasy and reality that will continue to dissolve for several characters (as well as the viewer) throughout the film.

“I need my freedom,” director Naoki tells Yukari, but never appears to do much with it except bed or proposition women he has little personal connection with, nor does he seem inordinately enthusiastic about anything other than completing his film. As connected and dependent as the various characters are, they seem closer in proximity than in emotional terms, often communicating through cellphones or arguing about conflicting expectations. Yet the group dynamic is profound, and none of the characters seem superficial or caricatured in their listlessness. As tensions mount and opportunities arise, several characters make rash decisions that echo the protagonist of their film, simply to experience them. Yanamigachi suggests the line between thoughtful decision and random spontaneity is often fleeting.

Among the film’s many cultural references is Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French novelist who emphasizes the contemporary commodification of human relationships (the film adaptation of his Atomised has just been released on DVD in the UK). And W. Somerset Maugham is cited, whose conflation of fiction and reality in his semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1915) seems as relevant to Yanagimachi’s film as the novel’s frustrated protagonist, concerns about personal freedom, and ambiguous ending.

Like many of the film’s references, the authors highlight Yanagimachi’s conviction for his story and provide clues toward its vaguely elusive meanings. For a story as simple as a film student project and as sugar-coated for cinephile consumption as it is, Yanagimachi remains true to his career-long propensity for asking questions rather than offering answers, and the film’s disquieting climax lingers long after it ends. (I’ve been able to find precious few interviews with the filmmaker, but if anyone can read Japanese and would like to offer a translation of this, I’d be highly grateful.) Who’s Camus Anway? remains buoyant and enchanting, even as its unforced depths–like its endlessly traversed staircase–slowly ascend to prominent consideration.

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