New Religion, the new film by Keishi Kondo, is an audacious venture trying to merge the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction together. With eerie silence haunting the characters and nightmarish cinematography that would make David Lynch proud, the film emerges as a cryptic treatise on the degradation of society and the immense suffering that plagues the human condition.
The plot of the film revolves around Miyabi, who loses her daughter in a bizarre accident and subsequently gets divorced from her husband. Working as a call girl, she now lives with her boyfriend, who seems supportive and accepting of her past. Strange events arise when one of her fellow workers, Akari, gets in touch with a client who is obsessed with photography and is possibly rearing humans that are in a state of war against all social institutions. Let’s explore the characters of this uncanny film:
The central character of this film is that of the grieving mother, Miyabi. One lazy afternoon, while her daughter Aoi was watering the plants on the balcony, Miyabi’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” got interrupted by the sudden thud heard outside. In a bizarre case of negligence, Miyabi’s inattention had let Aoi climb a small ladder, and she had fallen over the balcony to her death. Miyabi was so engrossed in her reading session that she just didn’t see Aoi, and the consequences turned out to be profoundly tragic.
Miyabi, from that moment on, metaphorically enters a dark room of such intense grief and suffering that fortunate ones are never forced to enter. She gets divorced from her husband because the family can’t process the loss together. The husband blames her for the negligence and sees her as the person responsible for Aoi’s death. It is clear from her interactions with her new boyfriend that she will never fully recover from the event. The grief is just too immense. Although she could lead a decent life with her loving boyfriend, who seems to genuinely care for her and doesn’t mind her working as a call girl, the tragedy of losing her young daughter has made her numb.
Miyabi’s suffering runs in the background while she goes about her daily life. It is like a perpetual score that has run for so long in her unconscious mind that she has forgotten to process and face the fact that her daughter is never going to reunite with her. The wide eyes, unresponsive, solemn face, and restrained body language all point to the fact that something in her is not quite right and probably never will be. The only reaction that gives her a sudden jolt is when she sees one of her co-workers, Akari, stab a man’s guts out on the street and go on a killing spree. Nothing actually changes, though. She continues to go on with her job. Her pimp’s willingness to drive her to Akari’s last client, even though he suspects that he has something to do with Akari’s behavior, shows that the shocking incident wasn’t as potent as to change anyone’s mind. The drudgery almost has the precision of a bureaucratic process, and Miyabi shows no intent of resisting its flow.
Whatever little mental strength Miyabi has remaining gets taken away soon, no matter how much care her boyfriend shows her. The issue with Miyabi and her boyfriend is complex. She isn’t totally indifferent to him. It isn’t as if she doesn’t understand his efforts. When she realizes that she is being too numb or preoccupied with her past, she does make amends, which only goes to show that she wants the relationship to work despite all the hardships.
The most important stage of her life begins with her interaction with Oka, Akari’s last client. It is where the crucial choice between drowning in her past or choosing the future is to be made. When she met Oka, he clicked photographs of her body parts, beginning with the spine and ending with her eyes. With each photograph, the sensation of her daughter coming back became increasingly real. She had gone to Oka to get information about Akari but fell into his trap.
Miyabi’s knowledge of seeing Oka before she actually met him is already a testament to the fact that he had gotten to her grief. With every visit, she will choose to have her happy future with her boyfriend diminished. It was never her intention to fight what Oka was trying to do, or perhaps her grief was just too strong. He was providing her a way of sensing her daughter to be with her again, and she didn’t care about the consequences. She does get her daughter back in her dreams, but in reality, she has become Oka’s terror machine, ready to blow up a school. Just like Akari before her, who had bombed so many schools, museums, and hospitals after killing her mother, Miyabi too was now just Oka’s plaything, on a mission to crumble society. It can be said that she has given away the control of her will to Oka and isn’t able to choose for herself anymore, which is why she kills her boyfriend without remorse. His attempt to bring her back to reality by erasing her daughter’s memory from her mind probably aided in her fury against him, and consequently got him killed.
Oka, the photographer, is the character the film’s philosophy hinges on. He is out to “save” grieving people, but as humanity knows, almost all claiming to be saviors have sadistic ulterior motives getting fuelled by intense misanthropy and contempt for existence itself. There can be many theories as to what Oka is. Is he human, or is he a ghost? Is he the result of a failed experiment, or is he a moth-turned-human? Any answer would be speculation. The crucial thing is to note that he has the ability to prey on a grieving person and turn them into someone who is ready to take their revenge on existence. Through his electronic voice, which he owes to throat cancer, he basically gives the suffering person an out, an escape into a dream where they can have the lost entity back into their lives.
First, it was Akari, then Miyabi, and the hunt for new prey continued even after them. What did he want out of the grief? According to Oka, existence is envied by moths, for existence has a history. Existing people have memories, and moths don’t even have a sense of beginning or end and hence have no sense of history. This bizarre reasoning, combined with his own experience of a moth’s dream within his own dream, has made him go on a recruiting spree, like someone who is out on a mission to proselytize others into his religion.
What do other religions offer? Heaven? Liberation? Well, Oka offers his own version of heaven in his religion and his own form of liberation, although in his religion, a heavy price is to be paid. Firstly, this liberation is only a dream within a dream. Secondly, in reality, the so-called “saved” individual loses its humanity altogether and wages war against existence.
Akari is targeted by Oka for his grief of losing his father and being abused by her schizophrenic mother. He probably made her feel the dream of having reunited with her father, but in reality, she went on a killing spree, murdering her mother and bombing institutions. Miyabi succumbed to her grief of losing her daughter and chose to end up with her in her dream and murder her boyfriend in reality. Seeing Miyabi gearing up to blow up schools and kill innocent children implies Oka was successful again.
The sign of a crumbling society is when suffering overpowers to such an extent that the individual loses faith in existence. The characters in the film become a way for director Keishi Kondo to comment on the role of religion and its role in driving people into turning evil. In our contemporary world, too, it is often the most suffering ones who turn to the extreme form of religion and, in some cases, start perceiving life as an unbearable prison where all their loved ones die and the suffering knows no bounds. The fake “saviors” always capitalize on this mindset, and no wonder people become terrorists. The film is by no means a justification for the violence but a metaphor to explore the immense suffering people go through, which makes them take the only way out, even if it’s a dream. The saviors groom them step by step, symbolized by Oka taking the photographs and reeling the grievers in one by one. In the end, they are left brainwashed with only destruction on their minds.