Set in a Town of nameless people, The Town of Headcounts (Ninzu No Machi) is a clever dystopian drama and a brave, accurate analysis of modern societal dynamics.
“You don’t belong anywhere. Do you want to?” When a man wearing orange overalls approaches The Town of Headcounts (Ninzu No Machi)‘s nameless young protagonist (Tomoya Nakamura, of Like Father, Like Son), this debt-ridden “average Joe, like all the others” jumps at the chance to find a place where he can truly fit in. And who can blame him? Having spent most of 2020 in isolation, witnessing the world as I knew it change overnight and feeling the weight of the loneliness it brought, I’m pretty sure I’d have done the same. After all, the need to belong defines the very essence of human nature, and writer/director Araki Shinji addresses it with intelligence and irony in an incredibly meaningful, astonishingly good directorial debut that is also an accurate allegory of modern Japanese society.
As our protagonist follows the mysterious man, whom he’d later come to know as Tutor (Yamanaka So, of Kill Bill), he finds himself in a line made of other “average Joes”, all walking through an unfamiliar building’s aseptic corridors and going through the same motions, as if dealing with security checks at the airport. Only, instead of metal detectors and passport controls they find bright neon signs, surveillance cameras, creepy injections in the neck, hoodies to replace their own clothes with and a code of conduct aptly named “The Bible”.
“You are now a resident of this town. Welcome, Dude”. An announcement welcomes the new members of the community, who soon become acquainted with the Town’s unusual rules. Since “family creates inequality”, all residents live alone. No children are allowed, and marriage and pregnancies are prohibited, but sex is permitted: in fact, it is encouraged and even prescribed, as frustration is believed to be dangerous. Though the overall-wearing Tutors in charge of the Town address the residents as “Dudes”, they are to call each other Fellows, and to compliment one another every time they meet. It takes a few days for our nameless protagonist to become acquainted with all these unusual rituals, and the “weightless” way of life that comes with them. But the Town’s quirky traditions soon assume a new, much more disquieting meaning, as Shinji’s powerful social commentary comes through.
In fact, the “Town”‘s nameless inhabitants, the “Headcounts”, soon begin to be tied to a series of events happening outside of the community’s walls, from fake product reviews and social media posts to election results, public protests and even mass shootings. As he embraces a daily routine made of random product endorsements in exchange for food and prescribed, inauthentic interactions with strangers, our protagonist begins to wonder about the morality of the kind of life he’s been asked to live – a life devoid of anger, but also of happiness, and in which he doesn’t even have the right to a name. When a new character (played by Shizuka Ishibashi, of 37 Seconds) joins the Town, looking for her missing sister, Midori (Eri Tachibana), the community’s flaws become more evident, even more so when the characters realise that they’re not allowed to leave.
As more and more questions pile up in our minds, a series of messages quickly pop up on the screen, providing us with real data on bankrupcies, missing people, abortions, voter turnout, unemployment, terrorism and other issues affecting the Japanese society, reminding us that there’s a connection to be made between the fictional Town of the Headcounts and our own grim reality. Araki Shinji’s intelligent, brave drama has a powerful message to send, and it does so in a technically flawless, incredibly effective way, so much so that it’s really hard to believe that The Town of Headcounts is Shinji’s first feature-length film. Just like his Headcounts, we, too, live in a Town made of instant gratification, prescribed politeness and powerful figures with ulterior motives, where terrible acts of violence are committed in the name of politics and we are kept ignorant, numb and entertained by fake news, addictive social media dynamics and the illusion of living a happy, meaningful life.
The Town of Headcounts is both an exceptionally well acted, stunning sci-fi thriller that will spark your curiosity and keep you on the edge of your seat, and a powerful dystopian drama that asks all the right questions and answers them with unmistakable, everpresent socio-political commentary. As entertaining as it is thought-provoking, The Town of Headcounts is ironic enough to be compelling and bleak enough to act as a wake-up call, and confirms Araki Shinji as a masterful storyteller, and a director to keep an eye on.
The Town of Headcounts (Ninzu No Machi) was screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October 2020.