Looking back on ‘The Clone Returns Home’ and the Foreign Film Fanatic

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Five years ago, “The Clone Returns Home” was the first movie I reviewed for this column. And as a movie about returns to life, earth and home, it seems fitting to end the Foreign Film Fanatic by looking back at this deeply moving, and deeply flawed, spiritual drama, one I was too inexperienced to review fairly in 2013.

It is a strange and alienating film, one that reaches for a universal significance that it ultimately undercuts.

It follows Kohei Takahara (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), an astronaut who volunteers for a cloning program so that, after his death, he can be regenerated and return to his life. Soon after, a mission kills him, and he is regenerated. All his clone can think about, however, is the death of his twin brother Noboru and wants nothing more than to return home, to see his mother again.

By this point, his mother has passed, and he escapes and makes his way home. In his stead, Kohei is regenerated once again with all his memories intact. He is tasked with finding the first clone and bringing him back.

Among the many things I missed on my initial viewing, the first is that “The Clone Returns Home” is not about cloning. The scientific jargon thrown around is only window-dressing, and the real focus is grief. When we grieve, acceptance does little. The only way to live with it is to feel it. To writer and director Kanji Nakajima, grieving is a way to close the distance between life and death, however small it may be.

Without grief, the souls of our ancestors could not watch over us. The movie’s biggest throughline plays into this idea. The soul, according to Professor Teshigawara (Toru Shinagawa), has a resonance that we feel in our bodies, and clones who do not reckon with their past body’s life cannot house their progenitor’s soul.

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Instead, they search for what brings them closest to it: home. Since there are four iterations of the same character, the movie’s structure overstates this point and drags the story on for far longer than it needs to. Kohei visits and revisits his country home, and each of these moments feels just as significant as the last. No more, no less.

Like his influences, Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Tarr, Nakajima’s style does not encourage empathy, but rather reflection. This is an “idea” movie that has a hard time growing beyond its premise. Nakajima can’t focus his story the way he focuses those ideas, and “The Clone Returns Home” suffers for it. At 19 years old, I was so blown away by the movie’s technical mastery that these repetitions felt more important than they actually were.

Recurrence like this is essential to “The Clone,” but without the emotional punch of a more intimate movie, they fall flat. As a movie lover with few reviews under his belt, I was both grateful that a movie like this existed and excited for the other movies I would watch for the column. In a way, I pushed the nuances of criticism aside and just enjoyed the movie. I gave little thought to its “5 out of 5” rating, in truth. Now, at the end of the Foreign Film Fanatic, the way I enjoy movies has changed.

I’ve found that I prefer movies anchored in characters over themes and plot, something I fought against in the FFF’s early days. On the first viewing, I felt connected to “The Clone Returns Home” because it represented my passion and the place I found at The Northern Light. In the same way that Kohei returns to his riverside ikkodate, I want to go back to The Northern Light office that day I pitched the column and begin again.

But without that beginning, I could not mourn its end, and mourning is a privileged act that is impossible without time and love for what you’re grieving. With “The Clone Returns Home,” I didn’t find a perfect movie. I found a new way to see the world. One that, without this column, its readers, and these movies, would not have been possible.