When it comes to self-discovery, there is no one right path, no universal means for those who walk this earth to become comfortable with themselves. This is the struggle, the burden we all share, whether we’ll admit it or not. For many, art is the means and method for exploration that leads to their truth. In cinema, this has given us stories like The 400 Blows (1959) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), films which explore how we see ourselves, imploring the audience to do the same. Enter CODE NAME: Nagasaki from filmmaking partners Fredrik S. Hana and Marius K. Lunde who blend the subject with the subject matter through the language of cinema with the end result being something adventurous, heartrending, and undeniably raw as Lunde enters a quest to search for the mother who abandoned him as a child.
From the opening of Nagasaki, audiences know they are in for something special. The music is minimal (a mixture of sounds like a taiko drum or hyōshigi, perhaps) while the visual element is sepia, the browns and blacks evoking something ancient or before our time. This isn’t the documentary, but a prologue of the style and format of what’s to come as the audience realizes they are watching a teaser trailer titled “Blade of the Forgotten.” The whole sequence, taking no longer than a minute, feels like Shaw Brothers era cinema. From here, the documentary begins in earnest with an introduction from Lunde, amid shots of their various projects involving a myriad of prosthetics, costuming, and sets, about who he and Hana are and their collective love of filmmaking. The duo are not anchored by any one genre, enabling them to explore to the fullest of their imagination. In this opening, the audience learns of the purpose of the documentary, which, based off the introduction, is not an exploratory dive in cinema, Japanese or otherwise, but a personal and literal hunt for Lunde’s mother who left him and his father over 25 years prior. Being filmmakers, Lunde capturing his journey on tape with Hana not only makes sense, but offers a way to process the various emotions in ways that words cannot. So that prologue trailer, it’s not a one-off, but a harbinger. Blade of the Forgotten is but one form of Lunde’s process to channel all of his emotions into something real. If one were to try to make a comparison as to the reasoning behind his approach and why it’s not as self-serving as it may sound on paper, look to recent animated family film The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) whose central character Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a budding filmmaker whose odd short films are conceived by the isolation she feels from her father. If you prefer something more concrete, look to 2020 award-winning documentary Dick Johnson is Dead which saw documentarian Kirsten Johnson craft one ridiculous and/or deadly scenario after another in her attempt to process the on-coming cerebral loss of her father via Alzheimer’s, and whose father played a significant part of each scenario she captured on film. This is the way of artists, to use their craft to make sense of the world, to make it more manageable by taking control.
Sometimes the approach is cutesy, as when both Lunde and Hana clap instead of using the traditional slate to indicate when something is a “scene” versus a scene. The slate is a global signifier that someone is shooting a take and the function is always the same. Since this is a documentary, the camera is almost always rolling and they needed a way to make their approach feel different. The cutesiness disappears soon, though, as the audience recognizes that the clapping serves, first, as a means of communicating to each other (Lunde and Hana) when a separation between real engagement versus something more stylized is about to occur. Later, it takes on something else entirely as we, the audience, see how the search for his mother begins to wear on Lunde. The clapping into a scene starts to signify an escape into a controlled space whereas a clap out of a scene becomes an escape hatch when the emotions run too high. As the cinematic elements bounce from a noirish detective story to Japanese horror (via the Lunde/Hana recurring Curse of the Demon Son), the entirety of Nagasaki begins to feel like their version of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), itself a vignette-organized exploration of self.
As a cinephile, it’s difficult to acknowledge that Nagasaki won’t be as emotionally accessible to some as others. To understand why the filmmakers opt for this style, this structure, as it’s more inferred than explained, requires a comfort with the way films speak. Communication is far more than just verbal means, it’s the kinesthetics or style of the deliverer, or the music that’s played, or outfits worn. People communicate all the time without saying a word, but it requires a certain level of knowledge by the receiver to pick that up. If you don’t speak Lunde and Hana’s language, then you make not realize what’s being said and, instead, find yourself distracted by what appear to be jumps in style or absolute disorganization in storytelling. But if you do speak their language, you’ll easily see how each emotion takes on a new genre or period: fear lends itself to horror, while searching becomes a black-and-white noir. Similarly, when enacting what a face-to-face confrontation might look like between Lunde and his mother, Nagasaki takes on more traditionally cinematic elements with close-ups, wide shots, and character coverage. Though Lunde himself, it is revealed, is in the process of learning Japanese in hopes of communicating with his mother (he doesn’t know if she knows either Norwegian or English), Lunde and Hana are clearly fluent in the language of cinema. They understand how lighting, staging, and blocking all convey or imply an emotional need or desire. They also understand that, with cinema, there is a hard beginning and ending; whereas real life isn’t quite so conclusive.
More than anything, the true compliment of Lunde and Hana’s approach is its singular focus. Dick Johnson, for instance, explores not just Dick’s life, but that of his wife, Kirsten, and those of their family. This works because the documentary is telling the story of Dick’s life and sometime death, which directly impacts all these members of his family. Nagasaki is entirely about Lunde and his quest to find his mother. They accomplish this by keeping her face, her identity, anything which would identify her to the world a secret. Faces in photographs, as well as easily identifiable locations are blurred. Who she is doesn’t matter to anyone other than Lunde, a telling moment captured by a scene in which literally everything surrounding Lunde as he walks toward the camera is entirely and completely foreign thanks to digital distortion. This also serves another, stylistic purpose which is to shrink the world down to only Lunde. If we, the audience, can recognize nothing else in the frame other than Lunde, then on him is where we shall focus. In that moment, with nowhere else to look, we are nothing more than frayed nerves desperate to know what happens next, a feeling achieved by calculated use of technology and a clear narrative idea focused solely on what all of this means for Lunde. Kudos to both Lunde and Hana for opting for this rather than opening it up to include more details. This may frustrate some who want to know more, but the audience wasn’t promised answers. The only one who was, or, at the very least, hoped to find some was Lunde. The narrow view of the narrative and narrower results ensure that the audience never loses sight of that.
Listening is the best thing we can do in order to communicate with someone else. Not talk, listen. If one were to talk about the creation of CODE NAME: Nagasaki, then the discussion of it being a commodity seeking recognition from audiences around the world comes first. As such, one could view the film as a hodgepodge of cinematic tastes slapped together in an effort to pad the time of a brief 69-minute documentary. Another perspective, one taken from listening to what Lunde and Hana have to say, is that Nagasaki is a profoundly personal videographic journal which can only be truly understood if the coded language of cinema is understood by the receiver. Even the happiest of homes have experienced some kind of strife, some difficulty that they needed to contend with, but it could only be done if everyone spoke the same language. If you don’t have some understanding of the history of horror, jidaigeki (or Japanese period films), detective stories, or just general social dramas, it may be hard to conceive of Lunde’s pain and his persistence in finding answers.
Screening during the 2021 North Bend Film Festival beginning July 15th, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.