Choosing the setting and characters to explore the theme of your story is a task in itself, maybe as important as finding the theme. These choices will ultimately define how your ideas become the narrative, the elements also by which the audience will hold on (or not) to the journey you’re proposing as a writer. And although many themes have been explored similarly throughout narrative history, some of them becoming tropes reutilized to exhaustion, there’s always some space for original interpretation. Something rare these days, I know.
Klara and the Sun is such a story.
This magnificent novel, by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, follows the adventure of one Klara, a robot designed to be a companion of humans. An AF or “artificial friend” built to address a growing problem amongst the human population, loneliness. But the story only uses loneliness as an anchor to talk about something else, for this story ultimately talks about “the human heart”, which some believe is a synonym for love. I’m not sure about that myself, maybe love is a too general topic, especially for a theme. In my view, the author is searching for that capacity that goes beyond self-interest, which is assumed to be an “only human” characteristic. Yet, he cleverly gives it to the protagonist of the story.
Yes, the artificial friend.
Klara is a robot who, as I said before, has been built to accompany humans. To help them. She starts the story impatiently waiting to be chosen by a human, at the AF store. From the beginning, we notice her personality traits, conveyed because she’s the one telling us the whole thing, as she acts as the narrator of the novel. We quickly get her curious and insightful personality as she tries to make sense of the world she experiences, not unlike we as humans would do but far more conscious about the process. Patterns and intuitions appear in her mind, prompting her to make assumptions in an ever-enduring necessity for understanding.
And yes, she gets picked by some Josie, a girl who falls in love with her and wishes to have her as a companion. And from this point forward, Klara gets to experience the world of a dystopian human society where extreme and cold rationality seems to have taken all places of society, leaving almost no place for feelings and higher callings (aka. spirituality). A place where children are genetically modified to perform better, with serious health implications for them, and a place where human labor is secondary to machine efficiency. All contrasting ideas merge into the spinal plot line of the story; Klara wants to help Josie, who’s currently dying because of ill-used genetic modification and she believes something incredible, the Sun can help her recover. With the little knowledge Klara has about the world, she believes the Sun to be a sentient being looking out for us, having magical powers that can heal the ill. She believes this so much she makes her life work to convince it to help Josie.
The plot gets quite complicated by the midpoint of the novel, turns out the mother of Josie wants to make Klara copy all of Josie’s manners and then when the time comes for Josie’s departure, take her place as the daughter.
I don’t think the idea here is for me to tell you the story, I think you should read it. And that ending… oh God…
If the capacity for love is the capacity to selflessly care about those whom you love then it doesn’t matter if it’s a human or anyone else who has it or does it, right? Just as long as it still exists in this world, which seems to be something were forgetting so fast. I hope many people have the chance to read Klara and the Sun, just to remember what it feels like to go beyond oneself, to go beyond getting something out of it, you know, to love.
There are movies that offer meaning at face value, you get what you paid for. They might have an intricate exterior, beautiful and provoking cinematography, fantastic set design, and an elaborated editing scheme; all aesthetic devices used to evoke the illusion of complexity. Yet there are other movies that are deceitfully simple in production design, but incredibly complex in their story and theme exploration. Movies like the latter can pass through regular viewers as boring and even bad ones, mainly because of the lack of commonality they have with mainstream media but also because of their groundbreaking nature.
Cure is such a film.
This amazing movie by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, which many people consider his best one, is an exemplary exploration of the human condition, of the reality of unconscious desire hidden underneath a fragile exterior of normality. In it, we find a hypnotizer who seems not to remember even his own life, maybe hypnotized himself, meeting people randomly and suggesting them commit murders throughout the city. This obviously catches the attention of the police, more so because all the victims present the same cut pattern on their necks, a cross mark in the flesh.
And so, we meet our protagonist, Kenichi Takabe, a detective tormented by a mentally unstable wife, trying to keep up with a life he no longer enjoys. Yet this is not the type of detective willing to analyze clues or find patterns in the crime scene. We immediately understand that he wants to get to the bottom of things rather fast, as he’s on the verge of desperation about his own problems. There are many things that exacerbate the situation for him. For starters, none of the killers, the hypnotized ones, remembers what happened to them. Worst than that, eventually, Takabe finds the hypnotizer, a strange guy named Mamiya. Questioning him for answers proves futile as this character can only respond with more questions, making conversation not only pointless but annoying to the breaking point.
And thus, we come to realize the truth about the story, progressing towards the inevitable end, which I won’t spoil but be warned, from here on there are spoilers.
There’s one thing to keep in mind to understand what’s going on, the primordial piece of the puzzle. There’s one scene where Takabe gets the idea about the real killer being a hypnotizer, he asks Sakuma, a psychiatrist, and Takabe’s friend, about it. The question is; are hypnotized people capable of killing? Sakuma answers with a blatant no, there’s no way to hypnotize a person out of their own moral choices. Yet most of the hypnotized people committed the murders.
Do you get the idea?
Some people make a comparison between Cure and Se7en, both no more than two years apart from each other. I got the same feeling while watching the movie and can say that there’s definitely some connection there, but there’s also a world of difference in the depth and complexity of each movie. As I said in the beginning, there are movies that want to make you believe there’s something complex being posed behind curtains, while others are so complex that they might pass blindly between your eyes.
By the way, researching the film I came across an amazing video essay about this movie, made by YouTuber Jack Gordon, you can check it here:
Just by watching the initial 5 minutes of Taipei Suicide Story, I got immediately unnerved and had to reach a search engine to look for information. There was a question in my mind that needed an answer right away…
Are Suicide Hotels a real thing?
Turn out they don’t, but the sole idea of them being so completely changed my perspective on life. I think this is one of those what if… that better showcases the current state of human affairs. And I have to be honest here, I think that they shouldn’t be real for the most part, at least not in such an open way. I think killing oneself is a grave mistake, especially given the plasticity of the brain and our capacity to reinvent ourselves over and over again. Does society fail to provide meaning to us? Of course, but at the same time we are part of society I think, we are agents of meaning.
So, what do any of these ideas have to do with Taipei Suicide Story? Well, a lot actually! But let me explain. This short film (at 40 + minutes this is hardly short but anyways) by writer/editor/director KEFF, his second film so far, presents us with a setting in which suicide hotels are a real thing. Many people go to these places and they are allowed to stay only one night, by the end of which they can decide either to kill themselves or walk away. Following the protagonist of the story, a receptionist in this hotel, we get into a procedural mood all over the place. Workers go about the rooms of the hotel “cleaning” the place, which means taking out the bodies. Our protagonist doesn’t seem too interested in any of this and this proves to be his downfall. Just at the beginning, he has a chance to “see the truth”, when a repented customer comes to him to deliver the keys to his room, having decided to “give life another chance”. You can guess how the protagonist responds to this; he doesn’t care.
I’m tempted to imagine what could have been about that customer after leaving the hotel…
But anyway, the protagonist has another chance at empathy when a coworker tells him that one of the customers has been staying in the hotel for over a week now. Pissed off at the bureaucratic problem this situation poses, he goes to take charge of it all. It is then that his life changes 180° after meeting the woman living in the room. Her situation is simple, she wanted to kill herself but then decided against it, but still, she doesn’t want to live either. So, her only choice is to remain in the hotel. Not knowing exactly what to do, the protagonist gives her one last night to decide, either she kills herself or walks away.
From here on, the two characters get to meet and spend a significant amount of time together, initially because the protagonist feels guilty because of his inconsiderate way of acting, which quickly becomes interested in the woman, who doesn’t say much about her life and is more curious about this man who lives as if there was nothing bad going on. Yet the protagonist’s answers offer little comfort to someone lost of meaning, as he talks about the positive aspects of being a nobody, a regular whatever guy with a whatever life. The woman clings silently to some melancholic feelings as she chooses her last meal and they part ways with some sense of hope, as they both seem to connect on a sentimental level.
Yet every hope dissipates when the woman unexpectedly asks for a razor blade, asking the protagonist to deliver it himself into the room. And it’s here that the protagonist ultimately fails, as he’s given a new chance to change the destiny of this woman, yet some inexplicable fear of commitment, or perhaps his own failure to grasp a valuable meaning to life, impedes him from making a choice that could have saved both of them.
The offering of a helping hand. You can guess how the movie ends, nothing too hard to understand. I absolutely encourage you to watch Taipei Suicide Story and admire the simplicity of its presentation, the nakedness of its truth, and the masterfully created plot that keeps you hoping for something maybe you could not deliver yourself. In a sense, I think no one can walk away from this movie unchanged.
Hi there, it’s been a while since the last time we went into this amazing prison story and the sick challenge. Last time we built the second act start, an aspect of the truth acting as an antidote to the specific lie (a moment of truth). This time, we’ll go forward into K.M. Weiland’s theme template to write the first part of the second act.
But what happens in this part of the story?
The protagonist gains a growing awareness of the truth, meaning, everything it will take to achieve the goal.
So, the first question would be, what does it take to achieve the goal, in the sense of a learning process?
I think, given the story so far, the protagonist needs to understand thathe won’t be able to do it alone and that to do it with others he needs to regain hope, to inspire others to follow him.
Now, let’s remember that the goal of the story is to win the challenge and escape from prison. Okay, so the first part of the second act comprises the lock-in (the moment the character decides to go into the plot, which was our last endeavor) and up to the mid-point, where the character experiences a halfway truth.
So, a good question to ask is…
What is the halfway truth?
Think about it as an antidote to the specific truth, which was something like this;
If generally “Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives”, then specifically, “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.
Considering that idea, let’s say that a half-truth can be suffering because of hope it’s called living, and it’s okay because it keeps you moving forward.
Now, how does the protagonist learn this?
There’s one element that can help us here, remember that people regained hope because of him and also that there are people that have been here a long time, these are the senior prisoners and they have information others don’t have, specifically, information on how to stay alive (but not how to win).
How about if one of these prisoners is his father, the one responsible for the family’s demise in the past. He’s also a senior prisoner and has much experience in “how to stay alive”, but not much about actually living. If we can make him change this perspective after meeting the protagonist and also sacrifice himself to teach this lesson to him at the midpoint, voila, we have our first part of the second act.
We have to understand that, up to this point, the protagonist has been reacting to the prison setting and the antagonist by exposing himself, he’s not thinking about escaping, he’s thinking about revenge. So, in a sense the character is not fighting to free himself because he has no hope for a better future, he’s trapped in the past. At the mid-point, we need the character to distance himself from that past and we’re going to use a mentor figure to make this happen.
At the end of the last chapter, the protagonist was beaten up by the guards as a reprimand for winning the first challenge. He also had his first encounter with the antagonist, who doesn’t recognize him and lets him go, underestimating him. As we already know, because of the protagonist’s win, people in prison town regained hope and started talking again. But, seeing the protagonist comes back harmed after his victory, a question is raised; who will have enough courage to maintain hope? At this point, we should introduce our mentor, which is also the protagonist’s father.
The important thing about this part of the story is that the protagonist enters a learning phase, by which he prepares and acquires the “tools” needed to complete the goal of the story.
And we already established that what he needs to learn is:
The understanding that he won’t be able to do it alone and that to do it with others he needs to regain hope, to inspire others to follow him.
As we know from previous installments, the protagonist lost hope after his father failed to show up in a war situation, resulting in the death of his mother and sisters. Because of this, our protagonist now prefers a lonely life and keeps hope away from his mind, which gives him a “coldhearted” persona. But there’s more because this coldhearted persona has a positive side, it allows him to analyze situations rationally and find the best possible ways to face them. Problem is, being led by the specific lie, the protagonist is only half of his true self and he’s also not realizing his full potential.
To make him face the lie he’s been living all this time, we need to make him confront the source, the father, while also making him learn what it takes to win the challenge, to escape the prison. The way we’re using the father, as a senior prisoner, gives us these tools because the father has valuable knowledge about how the prison town works and also because, in a way, he’s the one that caused the wound of the protagonist. What’s interesting here is that the father also believes in the specific lie, “hope can make you suffer and get you killed”. This is the reason he has survived all this time; it may also be the reason he didn’t show up that day in the past. Yet, seeing his son accomplishing the impossible, actually winning the first challenge, makes the father change. Deep inside he can now see the truth:
Suffering because of hope it’s called living, and it’s okay because it keeps you moving forward.
This means that the attitude of living by the rule “hope can make you suffer and get you killed” is not actually living, and having survived in the past while losing his family, and even surviving now inside the prison is not actually living. He may not need to say this, but the father has made his choice, he will rekindle hope inside his son’s heart as a final testament of his own life, a tribute.
Now, to build the first part of the second chapter we need to keep in mind our main plot lines:
The protagonist is on a revenge path, guarding no hope to make it out alive if it means killing the man who destroyed his family.
The protagonist’s father wants to help his son to escape prison to pay for his past sins, having understood that his viewpoint on life is wrong.
The antagonist needs the challenges to go according to plan to remain on top of the organization and keep the status quo.
People in prison town have begun to recover a long-lost sense of hope.
Let’s start from the top.
As we remember, last time our protagonist came back to prison town after being beaten up by the guards. People had regained hope and now they can see, yet again, what hope really means in this place. So naturally, they walk away, scared even to help this man who helped them just hours ago. But there’s one person who doesn’t walk away… you guessed right, the father. He obviously doesn’t reveal his true identity immediately, he presents himself as an interesting party and inquires about the protagonist’s objective, even offering to help in achieving this goal. Now, because the father already knows about the upcoming events, he issues a warning, to win the next challenge, the protagonist will need more than himself, he will need a team.
I understand that this might seem a bit “plot-driven”, but I want to explain. At this point, I want to open the story by introducing different characters that can reflect upon the theme while showing interesting characterizations, to enrich the story. It’s also fair to assess that the protagonist has met some of these characters in the first round, he must have found some interesting characters there, especially the ones that didn’t go into the maze blindly. Let’s say he even has one or two in his mind already, added to the ones the father is thinking about.
And so, the day of the new challenge arrives and expectations are high. There’s a new tendency on social media surrounding the event, people are betting on the protagonist, and they want to see him succeed. This poses a problem for the antagonist because he can’t have another prisoner win. He goes hard on the guards, on all the people in charge of the event to make sure this time things go according to plan, yet at the same time, he has to maintain a positive attitude towards the audience and their desires, which forces him to lose control, thus changing the status quo for the first time.
As we know, the new challenge is about teamwork and the stakes are higher than ever. Will the protagonist achieve a second victory? I guess we’ll find out next time, as we’ll go into building this second challenge and moving the plot towards the midpoint of the story. Until then, good luck in writing!
I was talking with a friend the other day and she was telling me about us people being unable to confront the void of meaning given by loneliness. How we tend to cling to any relationship, just to avoid that silence of ourselves and a surrounding from which we are disconnected, as a consequence of individualization. It’s a lack of stimulus I would argue, which produces anxiety by means of not having a purpose. The victory of silence, that’s the theme of Kairo to me. This 2001 movie by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa about isolated people and ghosts, overflowing into reality, makes a compelling case about the human condition and what we could say is the “reality of ghosts”, but let me share with you how Kurosawa puts it:
“… in Japanese horror ghosts are simply a foreign presence. They don’t attack, they don’t kill, they don’t threaten human life; they’re just there. And they show up in your daily life rather nonchalantly. They don’t make a terrifying entrance.”
Kairo follows the lives of two major characters as they enter a reality in which ghosts are not only real but normal (in the worst possible way). The first one is Kudo Michi, who works in a greenhouse on the top of a building, sharing daylight with co-workers Sasano Junko, Toshio Yabe, and Taguchi, who’s been missing for a few days at the beginning of the movie. Michi goes to Taguchi’s apartment to retrieve a floppy disk and to check on him. Being there she finds a bunch of monitors showing what seems to be a live feed of the same room she’s in. She also finds Taguchi behind a curtain, looking at the emptiness in silence, he’s just there. But not for too long because he proceeds to deliver the floppy disk and kill himself without making a fuss about it.
The other main character is Ryosuke, a college student who has recently acquired a new internet provider. Setting up the whole thing on his computer, he’s not into computers btw and this is important to the story, Ryosuke enters a website that displays a number of video feeds of people alone in their rooms, wasting away, seemingly suffering from being alone there. Seeing this, Ryosuke immediately turns off the computer (wise choice there). The next day, he goes to his college’s computer science department and asks for help about this matter, he ends up meeting Harue Karasawa, a post-graduate student willing to help him.
There’s also this kind of urban legend about a “forbidden room”, everyone who enters this place gets somehow infected by the ghosts and ends up becoming one of them, passing to the other side. Throughout the movie, many characters stumble upon these rooms (yeah, there’s more than one). These places share the commonality of their entrance doors being duck taped in red.
From there on we dive deep into Kurosawa’s take on isolation and the human condition, explained through some interesting reflections and visual cues, as we go further into a plot involving a ghost reality being overflowed by dead people and the consequence of ghosts entering our reality through the internet. What’s interesting here is that is not up to the characters to stop this from happening, they’re merely affected by this to the point of losing everything, while finding some sense of connection between the two of them by the end of the movie. Now, to understand that connection (which I think is the point of the whole movie) it’s also necessary to dissect what these ghosts are and the allegory taking place.
So, there’s this part of the movie where Ryosuke stumbles upon a science student project, it’s a simulation with a set of rules. There are these dots moving in empty space (let’s say the dots are humans), there are two rules. The first is that if two dots get too far apart the system forces them back together. The second rule is that if two dots get too close together, one of them disappears.
If you follow the story and the characters, you’ll notice that these rules also apply to them. Each time two characters get too close together one of them becomes a stain on the wall, which seems to be the first step into becoming a ghost. By the end of the movie, Michi and Ryosuke get together, the latter becoming a stain on the wall in her room, which brings Michi a sense of relief, as she will always have that stain there and this keeps her from feeling alone.
Researching the film, I stumbled upon many theories about what this ending means, some think the whole movie is an attempt by Kurosawa to make suicidal people understand that ending one’s life doesn’t take away the loneliness or suffering (as we get to understand that the ghosts are not having a particularly good time). But I want to remark on one idea that seems to hit the jackpot, at least for me. There’s one theory about the movie being about the idea of individualism and the inability to truly know another person because of it. As in the simulation, if two people get too close together, one of them disappears because it becomes a stain on the wall, a memory on the other’s mind.
Is this phenomenon the sole reason for increasing isolation in society?
Are we truly incapable of seeing the other beyond ourselves?
I don’t necessarily think this is true, but it certainly is difficult to experience the world beyond our own take on it. What do you think? I strongly recommend you to watch this movie and maybe reflect on it, maybe we can start tearing some walls off. Btw, if you do watch the movie, I also recommend this video, you’ll find an interesting take on the movie:
This has to be one of the toughest shootings I’ve ever had. Filming was a logistical nightmare! and many of the crew members were talking about the place being actually haunted. I don’t know, some part of me thinks they might have been right.
“Even if an endeavor built on lies seems to get off to a good start, the truth will always prevail in the long run”.
Margo, a world-class procrastinator, has a chance at success by stealing the shadows of the talented, taking their abilities but causing turmoil that forces her to assume major responsibilities which could bring about the end of the world.