Adapted from the Anthony Doerr short story of the same name, The Shell Collector is a vividly realised fable that tantalises the senses with its phantasmagoric island imagery but an uncertain narrative footing means that it struggles to sustain its initial spell, even at a slight 87-minutes. Still, this commentary on the precarious relationship between man and nature certainly has its pleasures, chief of which is a captivating performance from screen veteran Lily Frankie as the titular protagonist, a blind professor who has chosen to live an isolated existence on a remote beach.
The professor is not entirely cut-off from civilisation as he listens to news reports on his radio, has brief chats with the mailman, and receives letters from his son. However, most of his days are spent collecting and cataloging the various shells that he finds on the nearby shoreline. This solitary routine is disrupted by the arrival of Izumi Yamaoka (Shinobu Terajima), a painter who washes up on the beach with little will to live. Izumi is one of an increasing number of people to be afflicted by a mysterious virus which causes paralysis in the body, although the mind retains its cognitive abilities: her right hand has been frozen and not being able to pursue her artistic impulses has sent her into a deep depression. However, she is miraculously cured after being stung by a supposedly poisonous cone snail and throws herself at the professor, believing him to be her savior. Keen to have his privacy back, the professor is resistant to Izumi’s advances and becomes infuriated when she express a desire to be bitten again in order to further revel in the hallucinogenic effects of the venom.
This first half is pivoted on the awkward dynamic between the introverted professor and his extroverted guest, who really perks up once she has relieved of her ailment. Rather than finding common ground, the two opposites only prove to be completely incompatible – the professor has little time for Izumi’s need for emotional gratification, while she in turn chides him for preferring an isolated lifestyle. This not-quite love story plays out against a picturesque background (the film was shot in Okinawa Prefecture) with cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa pulling off some genuinely eye-popping compositions from the gorgeous landscape that range from picture postcard serenity to trippy evocations of the fantastical qualities of the nature. These ravishing, sometimes otherworldly, sequences are enhanced by Billy Martin’s hypnotic, percussion-heavy score, which not only achieves a trance-like ambience but also has a sinister edge that suggests dangerous elements in this cinematic sea of tranquility.
However, director Yoshifumi Tsubota subsequently loses control of the proceedings in tandem with the professor’s failure to maintain his sealed-off existence. Although the professor manages to get rid of Iuzmi, she openly talks about how she has been cured which spurs various parties to visit him in the hope that he will do the same for them. The head of the island (Akira Fukuhara) forces the professor to help his afflicted daughter (Ai Hashimoto with this request followed by an unannounced visit from the professor’s activist son Hikari (Sosuke Ikematsu) who arrives with a group of sufferers in toe.
These developments could be played for gonzo comedy or New Age satire with those seeking a cure for the virus coming to regard the professor as a mystic and setting up a commune outside his home, but Tsubota tries to maintain the meditative tone of the first half which only prompts banal observations. Themes that had previously been explored visually are now redundantly articulated – a visiting American journalist who is reporting on Izumi’s story states that blindness is itself a shell that can protect someone from the world while Hikari’s zealous activism is contrasted with his father’s adamant belief that things should be left to run their course.
Fortunately, this wayward tale is anchored wonderfully by Frankie, who often blends into the surrounding landscape with his sand-colored trousers, baggy white shirt, and flowing grey-flecked hair. Effortlessly conveying the heightened senses of his reclusive character whether shaking with delight on finding a new shell or recoiling from human contact, Frankie creates a finely detailed portrait of self-isolation in a film that is at its most beguiling when it keeps company to a minimum.
The Shell Collector receives its North American premiere as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Thursday July 21 at 7pm at Japan Society.