The Decay of Memories

Originally Published on March 13, 2003

In the film Memories, the obvious themes of unreality and memories often overshadow the methods with which directors Koji Morimoto and Tensai Okamura and screenplay author Katsuhiro Otomo portray these themes in unusual and intriguing ways. The use of decay and death imagery, as presented by the webs of death in Magnetic Rose, the cloud of death following Tanaka Nobou in Stink Bomb, and the decrepit Cannon City in Cannon Fodder, serve to encourage an ambiguous message on the relevance and importance of personal memories and one's perception of reality. It becomes obvious that the main characters of each of these three films has very little recognition of reality, and therefore is subsequently susceptible to unusual, and often fantastic, interpretations of reality.

In Magnetic Rose, a story of garbage collectors responding to a distress signal from an old space station who find an eerie museum of a long-dead opera singer, the heroes of the short film, Heinz and Miguel, are first greeted upon entering the station by the decadent hall of the Madame's home. At first everything seems to be pristine and well-kept. However, when Miguel tries to drink the Madame's wine, Heinz also discovers the first sign of decay and truth behind the façade of memories in the oddly wine-colored rust-water that spews irregularly from the faucet in the dining room, triggering Miguel to find that his glass of wine was also an unappetizing fake.

This decayed state can be seen throughout the film to represent the true reality of the station, and as an acceptance of the passage of time. The places that appear clean and beautiful are only the artifice kept alive by the computer, and ultimately by Miguel and Heinz. At the moment, the fake food seems to be all that is wrong with the station, but they soon find more wrong with the reality they are being presented by the Madame's computer. Miguel attempts to pick up a beautiful beaded necklace in the dressing room they explore next, but they fall apart the moment he tries to pick them up, while he exclaims "it fell apart." This would not be the last time during their visit to this station that the world around them will fall apart the moment they attempt to interact with it, as moments later Miguel finds the dresses of the former resident, all of which crumble at his touch. Oddly enough the photos and trophies of the Madame Eva Friedel are intact and in excellent condition, perhaps the only part of the museum that is more than mere memories of times past.

At this point in the film, already Miguel and Heinz have diverged in their perception of the station and its former resident. Miguel already begins to attach himself to Eva, scoffing at a photo of her and her late fiancée; he presumably sees himself as a better match for Eva, foreshadowing his later acceptance of her false reality. In contrast, Heinz is concerned only with finding the survivor presumed to be sending the SOS, and is somewhat frustrated by Miguel's wandering attention. At this point the two explorers separate, taking different paths in a visual metaphor for their psychological divergence in perception. Heinz travels deeper into the still beautiful yet no longer well-lit station, while Miguel travels upward into an unveiled decay. When an overhead statue of a woman begins to drip with a vile liquid which appears again and again as the decayed blood of the ancient station, Miguel waves it away by jokingly asking "who would make a woman cry?" Though the joke is innocent enough on its own, he once again shows the ease with which he'll accept a fantasy (in this case a statue of a woman) as real enough to be concerned about her feelings. He then continues into the increasingly more decayed hallway, only commenting briefly on its state. He finds a decayed stopped clock, and starts it up again. When asked to return to the ship Miguel admits he is lost, and indeed, he finds himself in a hall which no longer even resembles the interior of the rest of the station. Instead, all that he sees is piles of junk and the remains of a great hall, flooded with the disgusting muck that permeates the station. This room is the heart of Madame's obsession, and the origin of the distress call, and will eventually become the place Miguel chooses to spend the rest of his life. Upon entering the room he slips, perhaps figuratively as well as literally, since he will never leave this room. He falls into the disgusting fluid flooding the room, and emerges to discover the decayed remains of the piano hall. Upon hearing the notes of the piano he is engulfed by the artificial reality of Eva's memories, and never returns to the inevitable decay of reality. Miguel has found a fantasy world and accepts it readily as his new reality.

Despite the obvious fall into Eva's fictional world by Miguel, the film's representation of decay versus artifice becomes much more obvious through Heinz' explorations of the station. Eva presents to Heinz a beautiful fictional world, one in which his daughter is not dead. The transformation of the flowers to roses and Eva's sudden appearance in his hallucination forces Heinz to finally realizes that he has been living in a fictional world by carrying a photo of his daughter and not admitting he cannot return to her in conversations with his crew. For the first time in the film Heinz is thrust into the passage of time, and also into the decay of the station. He finds himself firmly planted into the web of decay that has been formerly a part of the ship only seen by Miguel. He then destroys most of the simulated table scene, but is still unable to destroy the simulacrum of his daughter. He realizes finally that she is dead, but cannot yet bring himself to let go of those memories. Unlike Miguel who is searching for a fantasy, Heinz is presented as having lived in one for quite some time. Both are unwilling to leave their fantasies; Heinz living out his own memories, and Miguel living out Eva's.

Using the tools of decay and beauty that have been established throughout the film to this point, it becomes trivial to discern the events which transpire when Heinz begins the hunt for Miguel. First, he passes the clock that was restarted earlier by Miguel, which has now begun to spin out of control showing the lack of regard for time present in this part of the station. He is approaching the room where the fantasy and decay meet, and are constantly superimposed over each other. Time has little meaning in the room he is approaching. Heinz finds the main hall, and is prevented from reaching Miguel by random pieces of junk strewn at him by the computer, including eerily moving statues and a broken clock, which he destroys one after another in an attempt to rescue Miguel. Eva once again summons her world with a single note of her music, bringing Heinz into the beautiful world of Eva's past. She confronts him with his unwillingness to accept his own truths, but he is oblivious, as he ironically demands of her "Why can't you accept reality?" She counters with a suggestion that making a lost loved one eternal in memory is enough, and he still misses her point, so she brings him into another reality, one from his own past which rises from the decay of the flooded room. He finds himself atop the decaying house in which he used to live. The fact that the house is decayed rather than the pristine and humble home he visits earlier in the film suggests that this is indeed the true nature of his past, and no mere fabrication. He is forced to watch helplessly as his daughter Emily dies before his eyes. Eva then emerges from the well-lit doorway of the house and presents him with a new daughter, the one from his wallet's photo. When he finds his wallet, however, he is reminded of the fantasy it represents and realizes the parallels with the fantasy he was dangerously close to accepting once again. This time the memories come flooding back to him on his own, and he finally mourns for his daughter, and accepts her death. The simulated dead Emily becomes substantial to him, and the fantasy one crumbles to nothing more than decay. His fantasy becomes subject to the passage of time, relegated to the past, and the death of his daughter is finally real to him.

At the end of the film, Eva surrounds herself still with her fantasy, singing to an audience that has long since died. As the analyzer cannon's after-effect clears the effects of time from her station, she spreads her vision of reality throughout the hall once again re-animating her audience. The ending of the film shows us three final images, solidifying the respective choices of the characters. One shows the true final resting place of Eva; though the room is relatively well-kept, the corpse of Eva has obviously succumbed to the passage of time. Her decayed body is surrounded by the remnants of her life, which continue to live on in the form of holographic memories. The next scene shows Miguel, now fully integrated in his fantasy as Eva's lover Carlo, eternally living as merely a character of her memories in a time long past and yet as beautiful as if no decay will ever touch them. Finally the film shows Heinz, the one who had started in the pristine confines of the station and indeed his own memories, floating in space amongst the debris of Eva's station. His face is serene, for though he is fated to die alone in space, he has accepted his reality as the one in which he wishes to live.

In the next short film, a comedy entitled Stink Bomb, a young man named Tanaka Nobou mistakenly takes a secret biological defense weapon to treat his cold, and soon finds himself involved in a rather unusual situation. Like Heinz in Magnetic Rose, Nobou cannot face the reality of the situation. Unlike Magnetic Rose however, this aspect of the character is played for comedic value rather than dramatic morality. As such, the decay of death that follows Nobou is merely representative of the absurd nature of his inability to recognize the situations he finds himself in. As the film progresses, larger and larger steps are taken by various military forces to prevent Nobou from bringing his cloud of death to the city. Though it would seem fairly obvious after the first few attacks that attempts were being made on one's life to any reasonably intelligent individual, Nobou remains clueless. The larger and more obvious the attack, the larger the cloud he produces becomes. The cloud becomes a visual representation of the veil that Nobou carries with him through his life, and it necessarily expands to absurd sizes by the climax of the film, where literally hundreds of missiles from helicopters and nearby battleships, as well as tanks, all converge on him. Even after all of this, he remains steadfastly intent on his assigned mission to deliver the drug to the proper authorities, oblivious to the effects he has on everyone he comes in contact with.

The stench itself causes an unknown effect in all animals, including humans. Though there is never any proof in the film that it renders people anything worse than unconscious, it seems likely that it in fact kills. In contrast to this threat to animals, the cloud also causes growth in plants, creating a virtual fantasy world where sakura and sunflowers bloom together. This world created by his cloud of a lack of awareness is beautiful and devoid of other humans; a perfect world for the socially inept Nobou. The drug essentially has allowed Nobou to extend his ideal world into reality, reshaping the world into one that fits his blindness.

In the final scene, Nobou finds himself deep in a high-security government facility, still laughably unaware of his dangerous presence. Though this scene is extremely humorous in nature, it once again exemplifies the true meaning of the cloud as he opens his suit and it immediately fills the room, presumably sterilizing it as well.

Unlike Heinz, Nobou never realizes his existence in a dream world, and it eventually consumes those around him. Even after he is captured and literally bagged by American soldiers in top-secret NASA suits, he still is ignorant of the obviously extraordinary trouble he is in. There is no salvation to be found for Nobou, making the comedy segment of Memories surprisingly poignant.

Finally, in Cannon Fodder, a young boy and his parents live in a decrepit war-torn city made entirely of cannons, filled with numerous symbols of fascism and downtrodden laborers. In this final part of the trilogy, the decay is everywhere in the city. Even the citizens are unattractively drawn, with extraneous line-work which has a meticulously hand-drawn look. In this film, the decay is representative of the populous as a whole's lack of concern for reality. The father is often shown to have a knowing look, seemingly understanding that what they are doing lacks meaning, but is apathetic and perhaps unable to affect change. The news they watch doesn't even bother to describe the enemy, assuming that the enemy's existence is reason enough for war. The father perpetuates this reality to his son by refusing to answer the question posed by his son regarding their enemy. He does this either by apathy or by his own ignorance; it is impossible to tell from the information presented in the film, but is irrelevant to the extent that it only furthers a lack of understanding and awareness of the world they live in.

Invariably it does not matter, as the end result is the son waking up and going to bed saluting a painting of his personal idol. This idol is not his father, whom he disdains, but rather a man holding the position to fire the cannons. Though many socio-political messages are prevalent in this final segment, this particular aspect of the family life focused on by starting and finishing the segment with scenes of the son shows a lack of caring and empathy for the family; an internal decay that mirrors the decay of the world around them. The people in this city have lost the ability to care for themselves as well as others. The minor undercurrent of pollution created by the cannons is not even a concern to most of the citizens, the few protestors shown are relatively ignored, and even they seem to be merely performing their duties as automatons. They have lost their humanity, and so the city itself has lost any resemblance to a living city, and instead appears as ruins filled with ancient weapons. The decay permeates everything in the city, even the hearts of its inhabitants, until they neither know nor care about their lives and loved ones, giving the whole segment a dream-like quality reminiscent of a long-forgotten memory. Through all of this however, the son goes to bed seemingly pleased and content with his imagined future even though it seems unlikely he will achieve his dream in a world where nothing extraordinary happens.

The films presented in Memories are very intricately woven tales on perception and memory. Though the methods of storytelling differ between the three segments, the themes are sewn together almost imperceptibly by the use of the common imagery of decay and death, whether it is Heinz' memories of his daughter and his acceptance of her death, Nobou's inability to accept his rather unusual predicament, or the inhabitant's of Cannon City's apathy towards life itself, the imagery of the passage of time and perception of one's immediate reality are used both visually by the directors and in the stories themselves by the author to drive the messages directly into the emotions of the viewer. Though the first film suggests that one must accept reality to find true value in living, the second segment implies that this is not always possible, with the third insisting that sometimes it is even seen as undesirable. The main characters all resolve their stories happily, even if only for themselves, leaving the message of the film ambiguous regarding which of these conclusions is best. Rather than a focus on reality, perception becomes the key; suggesting that perhaps living in a world that provides personal happiness and satisfaction is the most important aspect of living, regardless of reality.

This paper was written for a comparative literature class I took during winter 2002-2003 at UCR which focused on Dreams and Virtual Worlds in Japanese Literature and Films.