Otaku, Directed by Juliet O’Reilly
Like all excellent films, Otaku succeeds in challenging the foundations of human relationship of the environs from which it has emerged, such that in the course of less than eight minutes it manages to shock its viewers into questioning their own quotidian behaviour. Director Juliet O’Reilly makes effective use of cinematographic technique in parsing narrative elements together to effectuate the movement beyond the mere suggestion of blame toward the realm of accusatory certainty, though she manages to do this with a masterfully unhurried suspense, building gradually upon the simple and the quotidian toward the nefarious, the profane.
The film’s subject is too easily and unduly simplified to a lone interaction between protagonist Alistair Daniels (played by Alfredo Guenzani), and two strangers, Ashleigh (Lizzy Brooks) and Jenn (Bevin Bru). Their interaction, though brief, protests emphatically and powerfully the realities of quotidian human objectification, the subjugation of individuality to a culture of American xenophobia and social violence, and the isolation and barbarism of urban space.
Daniels, dressed in a bizarre anime-esque costume of his own creation, wanders the dark Manhattan plaza on the edge of which sit bored voyeurs Ashleigh and Jenn, who deride his costume and his public behaviour, only to agree to approach the young man with a proposition for a unique and compromising photograph. The plaza becomes filled with dialogue between Ashleigh and Jenn as well as the limited verbal interaction between the two young women and Daniels, who insists that to speak is to betray inauthenticity in his character impersonation. Before they approach him, however, their private interaction bespeaks a modern culture of judgement and objectification in which it is acceptable to casually diagnose Daniels as ‘clinically depressed’. This articulate form of psychophobia makes way for Ashleigh’s modern desire for a new profile picture, and the manner in which this topic is discussed is revealing of their objectified understanding of Daniels and their conflation of his personhood with his costume. It is their judgement that ‘absolutely no one is talking to him because of that awful costume’, but it is also the costume that draws their attention and solves Ashleigh’s frivolous problem. For it is not Daniels that interests her, but merely the possibility that she might ‘hold onto the costume somehow’ – and capture it on film.
Daniels agrees to their request for a photograph and for relocation to an isolated area behind a building of the plaza. The chosen space gives the aura of an otherworldly public prison with its interspersed and harsh lighting, its constricted, unreal passageways, and the thick metal grating which initially separates the observer from its bizarre seclusion. Daniels is taken captive by two young women who take advantage of his kindness, though he does not realise this until much later, while the camera perspective is that of the knowing observer that shakes with each step. Their hostile words are not easily deciphered, such as when Jenn tells him, ‘she thinks you’re really cute’ and they share a knowing laugh of which Daniels thinks he is a part, but cannot be; or when Jenn tells him, regarding the costume’s fabrication, ‘you did a great job’, to which he responds with a painfully unaware ‘thank you’.
But O’Reilly’s dexterous cuts through the social fabric of this interaction bestows upon the scene a gravity of dehumanism possible only upon the presentation of the human depth of the protagonist himself, whose temporally-removed, solitary actions at home articulate the barbarism of his public interaction with the two women. In the safety of home he unmasks himself, dissociating physically from his public costume and steadily revealing his humanity, private and undisguised. The sharp contrast between the auras of these two worlds, one private and the other public, are afforded by the use of light as a metaphorical device whose comparative cleanness and luminosity offer a safety from the darkness of the urban landscape. In this way does the colour palette of the washroom’s blue and white contrast with the deep, hostile reds and oranges of the city evening. Silence and sound, too, act as a defining distinction between the exterior and interior worlds of Daniels’ life, while the synthesis of these two spheres is accomplished with the wordless narration of ominous, dynamic music (composed by Anders Kapur) which, in addition to unifying the two time periods and spaces, also emphasises the psychological aftermath of rejection with its increased prominence in the silence of home; this in opposition to its whisper-like qualities elsewhere: foreshadowed memories of forthcoming trauma.
Through the steady process of private unmasking which parallels and cuts through the hostile urban landscape, Daniels is revealed as painfully human in relation to his dehumanising experience. First is the disrobing of his costume, followed by the meticulously documented cleansing of makeup. The progression of private action is such that it grows from impersonal to intimate in relation to the viewer: hands prepare the cleansing solution, Daniels stares at his reflection in the washroom mirror, and his gaze grows steadily closer to our own, until finally, at the height of social tension, he returns the viewer’s gaze completely, face clean and emotionally raw – entering our space, defying the cinematographic boundary in a way that echoes and builds upon the revolutions of the French New Wave. He confronts the audience unmasked, rejected, and vulnerable.
The costume is Daniels’ employment and an object of fascination, revulsion, and ridicule, and the time required to shed its heavy burden is the length of his memory. His thorough cleansing in the solitary safety of home suggests a baptismal significance to the affair of unburdening himself; even when completely naked, it seems, the process of cleansing is not yet finished, and the rejection of the mask conflates with a rejection of self. The privileged view of the knowing observer afforded under O’Reilly’s accomplished direction is an exhortation to cultural change. ■
Runtime: 8 minutes
Country: United States
Find out more
Find more information about this film and the work of independent British director, writer, and producer Juliet O’Reilly on the public pages for Otaku and Juliet O’Reilly in the Internet Movie Database.
Otaku can be viewed in its entirety below:
This film is the 2015 recipient of the Atlas Aeris Prize for the year’s best film of any genre. It is also the 2015 recipient of the Atlas Awards for Best Short Film and Best Costume Design for the work of Masa Kitani.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Full Disclosure: At the time of writing, the filmmaker and the writer were already acquainted beyond the scope of this review, having been students together. Additionally, the writer received ‘special thanks’ in the film’s credits for previously donating $10 to the film’s publicly crowdsourced production campaign.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Otaku’. Otaku.