Everything about Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani? screams “difficult.” First, there’s that title. Apparently it’s Aramaic for, “God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Next, it’s by Shinji Aoyama, whose best known film is Eureka (2000), a nearly four-hour, practically wordless, sepia-toned marathon of a film loosely about post traumatic stress disorder. And then there’s Eli, Eli‘s noise-music soundtrack which I made my mission to track down the second I learned of it.
It’s the year 2015 and the world’s population is being ravaged by a virus. Dubbed Lemming Syndrome, it induces its sufferers to kill themselves. The fear surrounding the virus—no one knows how it’s transmitted—is such that corpses are left uncollected. Bodies are seen hanging from lampposts along the highway and languishing in abandoned homes. It is in the latter that we first see Mizui (Asano Tadanobu) and Asuhara (Nakahara Masaya) in action, noise musicians scavenging for materials with which to make songs. An electric fan and lengths of plastic tubing become a whirring drone machine, while a shotgun is cocked into a microphone and recorded for future use. For much of the first part of the film, this is all that happens. Mizui and Asuhara make music, contentedly, and we watch them make music.
Into this idyll comes a sick teenage girl (Miyazaki Aoi), her wealthy father, and an edgy private eye who’s tracked down our musicians, known to the world as Steppin Fetchit. Yes, that’s “world.” Steppin Fetchit are world-famous, for it seems that those that listen to their music stop exhibiting Lemming symptoms. The wealthy father wants his daughter to stay alive and take over his company so he asks Steppin Fetchit to play for her. It seems, however, that Mizui and Asuhara just want to be left alone. “We don’t really play benefits,” Mizui straight-facedly tells the father.
Eventually he does play for the girl, and it’s one of the most beautiful sequences in recent film, of any genre, from any country. The film itself is crammed with gorgeous visuals, but this one raised goose bumps: Asano, playing a squealing, crying guitar, standing in a field, a seagull super-imposed over him in mid-flight. It’s a curious image, yet is no less powerful for being so enigmatic. When he collapses at the end of his performance, after giving his all, you really feel that exhaustion. Some online have complained that the sequence is too long. To them I say, watch it again, and this time really listen.
As with Eureka, Aoyama here isn’t so much looking for answers as he is musing on questions. “How can you tell the difference between virus suicide and real suicide?” Mizui asks. You can’t, of course. It comes down to the will to live. All that time devoted to two guys making music? It’s music as catharsis, a reason for living. Even in such a bleak world, it’s a reason to live.