Running time: 30 mins.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
"When you're up to your neck in shit, all you can do is sing." That one of the most oft-repeated quotes from Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett, and it was one that kept coming to mind as I watched Isamu Hirabayashi's 2008 30-minute film "BABIN". In the case of the stationary protagonist in "BABIN" though it's not just singing that goes on. He also talks and talks... and talks, but never is he not entertaining, which is a testament to Hirabayashi's very unique and absurd sense of humour.
Anyone who has been exposed to the stage work of Beckett will twig at the start of "BABIN". Like Winnie, the heroine from his 1960 play "Happy Days", the main character, in "BABIN" is buried up to his waist in the middle of a forest. Instead of Winnie's obsession with reliving past memories Keisuke Horibe's character simply talks and sings and preens for an audience of millipedes, garter snakes, rabbits and the occasional violent bear who crawl around and nose through the undebrush. We're not sure if he's entertaining them or himself, or both. One thing we're also not sure of is if Horibe's half-buried character is named Babin, or if the title of the film simply refers to the word that he ominously chants when he is hit, poked, or in one case, hit by lightning -- "BABIN... BABIN... BABIN... BABIN..." Regardless of having a name or being nameless Horibe's character is a joy to watch and listen to. Not only does he bring to mind Beckett's Winnie, but he also bears a striking resemblance to Edward Scissorhands with his white bondage-style top and thatch of wild black hair. Horibe brings wonderful campiness to his character as well. His reminiscence of nearly being run over by a marauding bear goes from frightening to funny as he recalls the strong woodsmen who kills the beast and then strips down to just a fundoshi. He licks his lips remembering this hunk.
Regardless of how entertaining Horibe makes his character, no one can truly live in a vacuum. Soon others join him in the woods and quickly add to the strangeness and absurdity of the proceedings. First a small boy (Naoto Nojima) runs in and relieves himself by pissing into Horibe's mouth. Yes, it's a pretty scatological moment followed later when the boy poops beside him, but "BABIN" isn't some scat fantasy pic. The boy visits this half-buried man each day, decorating him with rushes and flowers and slowly they go from being enemies to friends. The boy is eventually followed by a man (Satoshi Takahashi) who must be a scientist -- his bright orange jumpsuit (which pops wonderfully from amongst the green on green of the film), measuring instruments and the stethoscope that he uses to probe the delighted buried man all lead to the fact that he's researching something in the woods. "He's just my type!" enthuses Horibe's character while the scientist/ researcher gravely states that the woods are "decaying". This researcher also gives us the first clue to this strange buried man's identity (although you may have guessed it already). Probing around Horibe's waist the scientist finds a tag - "No. 4923". (Here's a clue: Watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Charisma"...)
38-year-old Isamu Hirabayshi, who graduated from Tokyo's Musashino Art University as a graphic designer and then went onto a career shooting commercials has, like film-maker Yoshihiro Ito, made a body of films that revel in the absurd, the surreal and the blackly humorous. It's hard to forget such Hirabayashi films as 2006's "Doron" where an actor auditions for a role playing a piece of crumpled paper, a cardboard box and eventually a bomb, and 2007's "A Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot" in which an artist is reincarnated as a maggot and goes about contemplating his fate. With "BABIN" though, which Hirabayashi shot for the New Directions in Japanese Film program of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, he brings us a story that at first confounds us, but eventually makes us laugh and then charms us like the very best children's story books... although this book has a lot of pee and poo between its covers. It was fantastic to see "BABIN" make its way to Toronto recently as part of the retrospective of Hirabayshi's work at the 2011 Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival, but we need to see these films on DVD... sooner than later, thank you very much.