Whale Bones is a memorable, well-crafted film, though its topic matter may not exactly be original. Though the movie might embody a somewhat problematic male perspective, it remains strangely haunting.
One day, Salaryman Mamiya’s fiance suddenly breaks up with him.. Desperately lonely, he turns to an online app to find a hook up, only to unexpectedly match with the high schooler Aska. Aska goes home with him, but when he goes to the bathroom, he finds that she has taken a large number of sleeping pills for an apparent suicide.
Panicking, Mamiya brings her body to the woods, only for the body to disappear from the car trunk midway through. Subsequently, Mamiya learns about the online app Mimi, which allows users to leave video messages that can only be seen in the physical location they were recorded.
As it happens, Aska was an influencer on the platform, commanding a sizable following of cultish devotees. These fans hunt around the city, looking for video messages left by Aska in public or private places. To find more information on her–in the hopes of discovering her whereabouts or fate–Mamiya joins their ranks. At the same time, Mamiya encounters other social media users—for example those devoted to another influencer named Rin—and finds himself exploring the strange intersection of the internet and the real world.
Whale Bones, to a large extent, engages with the question of social anomie–that is, the sense of isolation among outsiders in urban modernity. It is this that brings Mamiya and Aska in contact with each other, as well as what motivates Aska’s fans to seek her out.
This is not exactly a new topic. Whale Bones in many ways evokesShunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou—though the films differ given Lily Chou-Chou deals with male friendship whilst Whale Bones doesn’t However, the two movies share a focus on strangers that meet online through their mutual adulation of a public figure, who also shares their sense of loneliness. But while Lily Chou-Chou predated the age of contemporary social media and showed conversations about its eponymous celebrity on BBS-style forums, Whale Bones depicts rapid cycling through platforms and influencers with mere fifteen minutes of fame that characterizes the age of social media.
While there are explicit connotations to the age gap between Mamiya and Aska, the movie does not dwell on the element of sexual perversion to this, or to the fixation that various online fans have on AskaInstead, the characters of the film are primarily depicted as simply being lonely.
The movie does a good job depicting the surreal world that emerges at the intersection of the real and virtual. Likewise, the chemistry between the film’s two leads adds significantly to its appeal. Motoki Ochiai’s performance as Mamiya makes the audience sympathetic to a character that might otherwise be viewed as morally dubious, framing him as a confused everyman, even if he may have darker elements to his personality. Ano’s performance as Aska makes her seem like both a real person and a spectral internet micro-influencer. But the interactions of the two draw out the subversive danger that internet and social media spaces are often bound up with.
Whale Bones is not a perfect film; its conclusion may strike some as too unnaturally developed, and overly reliant on deus ex machina. Yet the movie is still captivating in spite of its flaws.
Whale Bones (Japanese: 鯨の骨)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Takamasa Oe. World premiere July 3, 2023 at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. Running time 1hr 28min. Starring Motoki Ochiai, Ano.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of the 2023 Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN).
This article is also published in No Man Is An Island, an online publication focused on the connections between everyday life and politics. No Man Is An Island is brought to you by the team behind New Bloom Magazine.