“The Clone Returns Home”: A thoughtful, compelling meditation on life and death, and the meaning of love and family

By on March 3, 2017

Japanese filmmaker Kanji Nakajima’s heartbreaking 2008 sci-fi drama The Clone Returns Home is a thoughtful, compelling meditation on the paradox of life and death, and the meaning of love and family. It’s in Japanese, with English subtitles, and you’ll find it streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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The original first draft of Nakajima’s screenplay won the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, and filmmaker Wim Wenders, who served as a jury member that year, liked the script so much that he agreed to exec-produce the film. His participation reveals that there might be a stylistic kinship between the two directors and their work.

This rare live-action Japanese science-fiction film — Nakajima’s first feature-length film as a writer/director — was later screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival on October 19, 2008, and then theatrically released under the title The Clone Returns to the Homeland in Japan in early 2009.

The beautifully cerebral and haunting low-budget film opens on astronaut Kohei Takanara (played by Mitsuhiro Oikawa), who sits at the bedside of his dying mother (Eri Ishida).

Her death triggers a lengthy flashback to his childhood (the young Kohei is played by Ryo Tsukamoto), and to the death of his twin brother Noboru (Sho Tsukamoto).

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It turns out that Noboru drowned while trying to rescue him from drowning at a fishing hole, sacrificing his own life for his brother Kohei.

As the surviving twin, Kohei is overwhelmed by guilt, and promises his mother he will live an extra long life in order to help make up for his brother’s death.

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Then, years later, there’s a small explosion on a space-station that Kohei — who has become an astronaut — is trying to fix, which sends his body floating into deep space.

This tragic event comes after a politically precarious period for the Japanese space program, and Kohei’s widow, Tokie (Hiromi Nagasaku), learns that, before his flight, Kohei had participated in an experimental cloning program, which had been developed as a kind of unusual “life insurance” policy — and insisted upon by his employers in order to prevent further loss of prestige — in which his body was to be “regenerated,” or substituted, with an identical twin clone implanted with all of his old memories and imprinted feelings.

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Tokie isn’t sure how to feel about this, and her uncertainty sends her on her own journey, an exploration on the nature of identity.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the clone is defective and his memory regresses to Kohei’s youth, where it gets stuck and fixates on the previously suppressed guilt-ridden memories about his twin brother’s death.

The clone is then brought into the government scientists’ lab for observation, but he escapes to the countryside in search of his childhood home, where he’d lived with his now dead mother.

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Along the way, he finds his own lifeless body in a space suit, and — mistaking it for his dead brother — he carries the astronaut corpse body on his back, to the same river where Kohei’s twin had accidentally drowned, reminding us of those depictions we’ve all seen of Christ carrying the large wood cross on his way to his crucifixion, a physical manifestation of the Hollies’ huge 70s hit, “He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother).”

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By the film’s end it seems that Nakajima’s film has abandoned the plot at some midway point, and continued the journey forward, mostly without dialogue, letting the visual beauty of the film say what the filmmaker wants us to hear (much of it about the ethical milieu about cloning).

There are some scenes which are completely silent, forcing the viewer to focus on each movement by the actors onscreen, and, as the literal storyline gives way to a nearly dialogue-free metaphysical one, we see that Clone has been set in an imaginary and yet utterly imaginable near-future that feels more like a dream, a place that likely exists is all states of consciousness: in reality, in memory and in near-death hallucination.

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One reviewer wrote that The Clone Returns Home is a film that “… breaks your heart in its first half and breaks your mind in its second.”

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Critics and sci-fi aficianados have noted that The Clone Returns Home was likely heavily influenced by the exploration of memory and time-sculpting method found in Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky‘s beloved 1972 space epic Solaris — remade as a much shorter film by Steven Soderbergh in 2002 — as well as reflecting the visual and philosophical tone of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, on of Night Flight’s favorite films.

Sci-fi fans may also note that The Clone Returns Home has aesthetic links to movies like Gattaca, the 1997 American sci-fi film written and directed by Andrew Niccol and concerned with cloning and genetic engineering.

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Like much of Kubrick’s and Tarkovsky’s best work, the film pensively moves at a glacially contemplative and deliberate pace, slowly unfolding like each petal of a morning glory.

By its end has become a thoughtful and soulful meditation on love, life and family, musing on what it truly means to remember someone in your heart (or brain) until the day you die.

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Kanji Nakajima

Nakajima’s 110-minute film also offers up a uniquely Japanese perspective on the role and meaning that we give religion, science and ethics in our own lives, a Buddhism-driven thought-piece that meditates on the discipline or practice of zazen, or “just sitting,” which is at the heart of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism (its aim is to suspend all judgmental thinking and let words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them).

In the section usually reserved for warnings of nudity, language, or violence on the DVD cover, we see this cautionary warning instead: “Contains significant amounts of philosophy.”

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One of the highlights is cinematographer Hideho Urata’s stunning work behind the lens, capturing the haunting stillness of the rain-soaked Japanese countryside (all filmed within an hour of Tokyo), and using a palette of moody blues and greens in such a way that the eye is lulled by their dreamlike beauty and then shocking by the rare use of a bloody red, which jars us back to reality.

Yûta Yamashita’s moving original musical score is perfectly nuanced and brooding, used thoughtfully and precisely, creating a surreal soundscape with occasional pauses of silence that melds perfectly with the misty landscape onscreen.

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The Clone Returns Home — which is admittedly a bit of a departure for Night Flight — is nevertheless highly rewarding on multiple levels, and really deserves a closer look, especially if you’re fond of the classic films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick and Wim Wenders. It’s streaming for our subscribers over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.