Every once in awhile a movie sees around the corner to where the culture is heading. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) was released when baby boomers were still baking granola and dreaming of communal peace and love, but its dystopian vision of ultra violence being visited on random strangers by youths with the morals of sharks has hardly been proven wrong, though the modern-day perpetrators are often wearing hoods rather than the hero’s bowler hat.
Yutaka Tsuchiya’s docu-drama “Thallium Shojo no Dokusatsu Nikki (GFP Bunny)” is similarly clear-sighted about current scientific and cultural trends, though its vision holds out the possibility of hope, even for outsiders with a thing for extreme body modification (and I’m not talking about Botox).
Winner of the Best Picture Award in the 2012 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes section, “GFP Bunny” is certainly ambitious — Tsuchiya says in a program statement that its three themes are “surveillance in a marketing-oriented society, characterization of identity and biotechnology”- but it is also briskly paced, smartly edited and consistently engaging, if uncompromisingly disturbing. (This may not be the film for you if memories of high school biology class still give you the heebie-jeebies.)
Tsuchiya’s nameless heroine — a 16-year-old girl (Yuka Kuramochi) who is bullied at school and neglected by her self-involved mom (Makiko Watanabe), is something of a standard-issue type for Japanese coming-of-age movies, but she is based on a real-life model: a girl who in 2005 tried to poison her own mother with thallium — a deadly tasteless and odorless substance not found in nature.
Also, the girl’s responses to her bad home-and-school situation are anything but ordinary. Fascinated by advances in biology and genetics and well-versed in all things Internet, she analyzes and dissects various living things with the methodical thoroughness of a scientist (if one with psychopathic tendencies) and posts the results on her YouTube video diary (thus the film’s Japanese title).
Her studies enter a new, dangerous stage when she begins to use her mother as an experimental subject, dripping thallium into Mom’s open mouth as she sleeps. Grimly determined to slow the aging process with everything from exercise to cosmetic surgery, Mom is horrified by the changes the poison wreaks on her body, from lethargy to hair loss. To her relentlessly inquisitive daughter, they are simply more data, though the cold glint in her eye is not that of an objective researcher.
Tsuchiya not only serves as the girl’s off-screen interlocutor (and audience stand-in), but also inserts interviews with everyone from university researchers to a New Religion crank to give his story (or rather “meta-fiction,” as the program calls it) context and depth. A biologist who has produced transparent frogs as aids to studying biological processes speaks of his ambition to make ones that glow. The girl tries something similar with a fish, while befriending a body-modification artist (played by the singularly named Takahashi) who has gone beyond the usual tattoos and piercings and implanted an IC chip in her hand that allows her, as she explains, “to monitor” herself.
The girl also becomes the unwilling subject of her bullies’ own video, which is later seen on a porn site by a pervy teacher (Kanji Furutachi). But his shock at recognizing her is mixed with a dirty sexual thrill at the sight of her bound-and-gagged, as helpless as a frog in a dissecting tray. This guy’s reboot, we see, will require a total replacement of his moral/sexual motherboard.
The film’s view of the human condition is thus hardly rosy: “One day you’ll get old and die — that’s what you’re programmed for,” the girl bluntly tells her mother. “There’s no God, only a program.” However, it’s also not blackly pessimistic. Unlike creatures whose fates are determined by their DNA, we can, the film says, change our programs. “Mom, you should reformat yourself,” the girl says — and she is not talking about a new diet-and-exercise regime.
The film’s vision of what such a reformatting might entail, as exemplified by Takahashi with her wise-alien-from-another-planet look, will not be for everyone, but its belief in freedom is somehow heartening. There is no guarantee, though, that our freedom to reboot ourselves will result in anything we 21st century mortals would recognize as human.
Fun fact: “GFP Bunny” star Yuka Kuramochi appears together with fellow “gravure” (pin-up) idol Mao Harada on the program “Kuramochi x Harada no Joshi Doga” on the Nico Nico Douga video-sharing site.”