George Orwell’s 1984 has somehow become even more meaningful in the last few years, as those who clearly think it had a happy ending extend their reach through deception and deceit. Its central message has been updated and traced several times onto the current issues of many places. Yet somehow, Shinji Araki’s The Town Of Headcounts uses this same template in a fresh way to paint a metaphor of life in Japan that is as relevant a statement on Japanese culture as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was to Korean. The end result is a brutal, shocking parable that will stick in your mind long after the credits have rolled.
Story-wise, you should go in as blind as possible. What you will learn from the first ten minutes is that there is a place where young disaffected Japanese adults can go when society has rejected them. It offers safety and sanctuary, where equality in both sex and stature is encouraged. Freedom is the bait on the hook, and the worm is tasty to those that are hungry.
What you learn over the following 110 minutes is where the terror comes in, slowly turning its screw in steady, quiet shots that are reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Under The Skin. While Headcounts doesn’t go as far down the sci-fi path, it has its own similar moments where you would look away if you could only move.
The brutalist design of the titular “town” – really a bleak, concrete enclosure filled with sleeping quarters, fitness rooms, eating locations, and…other places – echoes Araki’s editing and direction. Long, slow shots occasionally get cut by single seconds of abject brutality. Periods of near-silence are used to smother, only worsened by when the silence stops. Characters are never given depth beyond their function in the story, save for a few pre-Town flashbacks that make you struggle to decide which is the real hell. And as the Town reveals its true purpose, one that is made more horrific in its simplicity, this comparison becomes even more difficult.
This may sound pretentious or superficial, but like the theatre productions of Brecht or Berkoff, this is a story primarily interested in painting you a picture of its chosen metaphor, rather than focus on deep character explorations. Similar to 1984 and Berkoff’s famous version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the one character who does bleed emotions stands out like a light in the darkness, for all the good that does her. These emotions seep into others, giving us hope in turn. But we know what Orwell taught us about hope, and Headcounts seeks to hammer that point home with its own jarring, quiet conclusion.
Young Japanese adults have unbelievable expectations laid at their feet. Family and personal freedoms are sacrificed for the greater good of the company. Strain and pressure are signs to hard work. Suicide rates continue to soar. Societal conformity is an absolute priority. Viewed through this lens, The Town Of Headcounts reveals its true sting: that the horror is real and present, happening right next to you, right now. This strong, resonating message, combined with a brutal filming style, results in one of the best movies you’ll see at VIFF. As unsettling it is to sit through, it is essential.