Last Yakuza in the Universe
In the opening sequence of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003) we see Kenji’s (Tadanobu Asano) imagined suicide. We are shown his ‘attempt’ through the constricted lens of Kenji’s ordered and dull imagination. These illusions are aesthetically reinforced in the scene through the use of surreal soundscapes, set design, and diffused color. These elements work to force us further into Kenji’s subjective mind state and therefore into his filmic world; one of order and loneliness. Moreover, these components also function to reinforce the iconic and emblematic lizard that is a fundamental aspect of Kenji’s character. In this analysis we will look specifically at how this sequence technically and symbolically functions in representing Kenji’s character.
The sequence begins in absolute blackness as we hear a minor key on a piano struck; a low frequency rumbling immediately follows. The piano key sounds again in a rhythm reminiscent of a tempo rubato and again bass swells in amplitude gently behind it. Finally, a third piano hit is heard that triggers the start of two more layers of sound; their timbre sharp and pitch high. The sound begins to crescendo as we cut to a long shot of a gray gecko on the side of a desaturated greenish wall. This is the first appearance of the gecko in the film, it represents Kenji and his loneliness because just like him it has no friends; surrounded instead by orderliness and quiet. Furthermore, the gecko functions as a motif for Kenji’s fantasy as we will examine later. The sound then crescendos and gains another sharp layer as we begin to dolly backwards to reveal our first view of the space. The layering of high and low frequency sounds produce sympathetic frequencies that create unease in the viewer, therefore placing us in a surreal space. Moreover, the soundscape functions as internal diegetic sound because we are within the confines of Kenji’s fantasy world and therefore mind, this is further reinforced by the dreamy quality of the desaturated film and diffused lighting.
As we dolly backwards we see dates on paper strips on the wall and neatly stacked and color sorted books; the gecko remains in selective focus as we pull further back. More of the wall and books slowly make their way onto the frame as the gecko runs up the wall and out of the shot. This is the first shot we are shown the meticulous nature of our protagonist Kenji and his need for neatness; even within a fantasy. We then cut to two identical chairs side by side, their symmetrical quality is illuminated by diffused key and backlighting, which creates vertical and horizontal lines from shadows on the curtains behind them; further elucidating neatness. Here we hear a second piano note in combination with the first, providing us with more dramatic tension to prepare us for the shot of Kenji in a noose. Next we cut to a long shot of a shoe rack, the pairs of shoes pristine and labeled for different days of the week further exposing Kenji’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
We cut again to more books, this time arranged by size and stacked on top of what look like large encyclopedias, again we see library type labels on the wall, therefore foreshadowing Kenji’s occupation as a librarian. We then cut to a loose long shot of a pile of books scattered on the floor (and one slipper), this time the books are different colors and sizes and as a byproduct our sense of order is destroyed. It is here we here the chirp of a gecko, providing us with what we assume is diegetic sound and reinforcing the gecko motif (fantasy). We then begin a tilt upwards revealing the swinging feet and lower legs (selectively in focus) of Kenji as he dangles from a noose in the foreground of the hallway. Here we see graphic vectors created from vertical shadows on the hallway floor and Kenji’s pants, creating a line between the planes in the frame; therefore drawing our attention towards the out of focus door. The camera pans slightly left and then right before stopping on his legs while leaving space on the left to make room for the door at the end of the hallway. This shot illustrates Kenji’s personality in the deep staging we see (through a long focal length lens) because the out of focus space acts as a barrier with the door, therefore separating Kenji from the external world. This shot well illuminates his feelings in the film, as he is hardly interested in the outside world throughout the diegesis.
This kind of separation from reality is also reinforced by the book he is reading throughout the film; “The Last Lizard.” Later in the film he reads us this passage: “The lizard is all alone. He misses his family and friends. Even his enemies. It’s better being with your enemies than being alone.” The book is very important to the lizard motif in the film because it functions in giving us reasons Kenji feels alone through his affinity for the book. This passage for example reinforces that Kenji (from Japan) feels lonely and distanced from everything he knows as he now lives in Bangkok. Moreover, when he stays with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) he is not able to communicate efficiently with her due to a language barrier, further reinforcing his alienation. Furthermore, the notion of his family, friends, and enemies relates to him likely being on the lamb from his yakuza family back in Japan (killing some of them at the start of the film).
In the continuation of the hallway shot we see Kenji’s only ‘friend’ the librarian (Junko Nakazawa), their emotional distance is represented by her remaining out of focus and never entering Kenji’s house/fantasy. Right before she enters we hear a voiceover from Kenji, he states: “My name is Kenji. This could be me three hours from now.” This voiceover tells us that the sequence is imagined and more importantly fantasized. Next, we hear the librarian and the security guard enter through the door followed by the diegetic sound of the room (the soundscape is crossfaded out) and the sound of the librarian fainting in the doorway. Next we see and hear the security guard as he approaches Kenji’s body, interestingly as he gets closer we see a backwards dolly shot and reframing that provides us with a kind of medium shot (waist down) of both characters (highlighting the similarity of their pants). The security guard’s pristine uniform and the aforementioned vectors further elucidate we are still in Kenji’s fantasy; the combination of fill and key lights create a linear quality in both character’s pleated pants (from an off frame key light to the right).
The security guard then begins to carefully examine one of Kenji’s books and the remaining slipper on his foot, further elucidating the scene’s imaginative nature as the guard represents Kenji’s over attention to detail. Kenji continues explaining his reasons for suicide over the next three cut shots, explaining that:
“I wouldn’t kill myself for the same reasons as other suicidal people. Money problems… Broken heart… Hopelessness… No, not me. Many books say ‘Death is relaxing.’ Did you know that? No need to follow the latest trends… No need to keep pace with the rest of the world… No more e-mail… No more telephone… It’ll be like taking a nap… Before waking up refreshed and ready to begin your next life. That’s what ‘they say.”
The voiceover tells us that Kenji’s character is not depressed because of emotional issues per say, but rather that he would like to escape from the orderliness of his life. Moreover, not unlike Harold in Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971), we are shown Kenji’s melancholic approach to life so it can be later reversed by his free-spirited Maude type character, Noi.
The next three shots that accompany the voiceover further express his OCD; a loose long shot of the two chairs with coffee table placed perfectly in the middle (filled with neatly stacked DVD cases), and after a cut to a long shot of a clean kitchen counter with plates, glasses, a knives all perfectly spaced, aligned, and sorted by color and size (lines on the tile counter create a linear and symmetrical sense of organization). In the third cut shot we see part of the hallway and living area in deep focus, it is crowded with full book shelves; graphic vectors from the shelves’ edges separate us from the action. Here, the guard continues to examine Kenji, removing a piece of paper from his hand and examining it; the triple layered soundscape fades back in. Here we see a graphic match as we cut to a loose close-up of a sticky note that reads: “This is bliss.” This shot is the first shot in the film that we are in reality, showcasing that we are now beginning his plan for suicide. We then track left and tilt up to follow Kenji as he turns right, then in a backwards moving dolly shot he is reframed into a bust shot; he begins tightening a noose around his neck.
In the last part of the sequence we cut to a shot of neatly stacked books (at the center of the frame) as the camera slowly tilts up to a kind of medium shot of Kenji’s waste, his palms facing the camera revealing the note in his right hand. We stay on the framing for a moment as the music builds more tension; we now realize that Kenji might actually kill himself. However, we cut back to the bust shot of Kenji just as the diegetic sound of a door buzzer cuts the tension startlingly. The door buzzer continues to ring; Kenji lowers his head in a stoic manner, but then looks up at the camera after a moment. Kenji looking into the camera provides a very interesting question that we must look at when looking at the film as a whole; how do we know when we are in his imagined world.
The question of fantasy is further complicated in many scenes in the film, such as the last scene in the police station where we see a detained Kenji vividly imagining being in Japan with Noi. Another is in the trippy cleaning sequence where Noi excitedly watches her house clean itself, however we know she is messy and that this improbable situation is most likely in Kenji’s imagination. There is also the scene where they are watching television on Noi’s couch, but the sound of the ocean can be heard unmistakably in the background (but there is no ocean outside). Furthermore, later in the couch scene Noi is replaced with her dead sister in a cut as they fall asleep, creating even more discontinuity and confusion. Moreover, all of these scenes like the beginning sequence use geckos to represent the crossing into the unreal. For example, in the cleaning scene we see a cut to a gecko on the celling right before items begin flying through the air. In the police station we hear the chirp of a gecko and in the couch scene sequence we hear it as well as see it as it falls on the table in front of the couch. The gecko is emblematically attached to Kenji’s fantasies in the film and is even further reflected in the lizard in general.
The lizard functions to not only point out fantasy sequences in the film, but also functions as a direct symbol for Kenji’s character. This is elucidated by the aforementioned “Last Lizard” book he identifies with, to the much more subtle visual reference of Yukio Mushima’s theatrical adaptation of the Black Lizard (about yakuza), which is visible during Kenji’s brothers visit (Free). Interestingly this novel ties well into a yakuza motif for Kenji, specifically if we combine it with his yakuza style tattoo (as seen at the police station) and also the obvious visual reference of an Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) poster in the library. Moreover, this idea could point to a secondary desire therefore reinforcing his original want for suicide, this time represented by his want to escape the notoriously ordered ranks and code of the yakuza. Furthermore, this idea is encompassed by him hiding out at Noi’s place with no interest in clearing his name to the police or gang (or returning home to Japan).
Regardless of Kenji’s yakuza status we know that he is a man who lives in a controlled world created and managed by his OCD and overactive imagination. Not only is his space practically a library from which he can dive into books and therefore another reality, but he allies himself with the lonely “Last Lizard” or gecko. Moreover, it is this loneliness that drives the film’s narrative and therefore brings Noi and Kenji together. Furthermore, this theme of alienation is popular in Ratanaruang’s films and is well reflected in Kenji’s status as an immigrant as well as someone who does not wish to participate in the world around him. Kenji is at the core a man who wishes to escape from the mundane world, but cannot due to his addiction to order. This idea is illuminated throughout the film in his fantasies about suicide and is further showcased by the ‘suicide attempt’ in the sequence; where Kenji does not even tie the noose (his fear of losing control in death). In conclusion, all the elements of this sequence function to create a filmic world that exemplifies Kenji’s loneliness and obsession with order. Furthermore, these elements create the basis for Kenji’s personality and therefore allow for the love story between him and his antithesis, the messy and caution free Noi.
“Free screenplays by screenwriters you know and love.” Drew’s Script-O-Rama: free movie scripts and screenplays. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. < http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/l/last-life-in-the-universe-script.html>.
Mishima, Yukio, and Laurence Kominz. Mishima on stage: the Black lizard and other plays. Ann Arbor, MI: The University Of Michigan, 2007. Print.
Harold and Maude. Dir. Hal Ashby. Perf. Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon. Paramount Pictures, 1971. DVD.
Ichi the Killer (Unrated Edition). Dir. Takashi Miike. Perf. Tadanobu Asano, Nao Ohmori, Shinya Tsukamoto. Media Blasters, 2001. DVD.
Invisible Waves. Dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Perf. Tadanobu Asano, Hye-jeong Kang, Eric Tsang. Palm Pictures, 2006. DVD.
Last Life in the Universe. Dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Perf. Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Takashi Miike. Palm Pictures / Umvd, 2003. DVD.
 The theme of alienation and being separated from what one’s culture is a recurring theme in Ratanaruang’s films. This can be seen explicitly in Asano’s character in Invisible Waves (2006)
First Published 11/13/11