The Double Meaning of Existence: Kishi Yoshiyuki’s New Approach to an Old Philosophical Problem
“What does it mean to exist in the context of contemporary Japan?”
This question guides not only the postgraduate thesis of its protagonist, Tama (Mugi Kadowaki), but also serves as the central focus of Kishi Yoshiyuki’s film Double Life (2016). To investigate this idea, Tama’s professor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), poses a peculiar task to her: stalking.
He gives her three rules:
- The subject must be randomly chosen.
- She cannot come into any sort of direct contact with the subject.
- She must observe the subject without purpose
It is perhaps at first surprising that Shinohara proposes the method of stalking another subject in order to understand what it means to exist. Given the philosophical tradition, existence has long been established through Descartes’s cogito argument: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes argues that as long as he is consciously thinking, he can be positive of his own existence, with no further proof required. Even if there is a malicious demon who attempts to deceive his senses, he cannot be wrong about his own existence, for he must exist in order for the demon to act on him in first place.
However, further examination of Tama’s thesis reveals why Descartes’s argument cannot be appropriately applied to her problem. She wishes to explore, specifically, what it means to exist in a social context. To Descartes, the act of thinking merely establishes that he is a ‘thinking thing’, no more and no less. He does not know what he is beyond this fact, nor his relationship to the outside world. Yet, in Tama’s case, it is required that she establish her position with relation to an outer context. Therefore, a different approach is warranted.
Kishi argues that in order to exist in society, one must receive external confirmation. Through this stance, we can interpret Shinohara’s intentions behind assigning Tama the task of stalking ‘a stranger’. He wants her to understand what it means to exist not only through observing the mode of her subject’s social existence, but on a theoretical level, become the external evidence of his existence. As long as he is under the observation of Tama, her subject Ishisaka (Hirogi Hasegawa) can be confirmed to exist socially.
To illustrate this idea, Kishi ensures that the audience’s view of Ishisaka is always through Tama’s perspective. When she runs after him in the streets, we follow the shaky camera which mimics her movements; when she watches him through the glass outside of a restaurant, we are prevented, alongside Tama, from hearing his conversation at the table. The only proof of Ishisaka’s existence in the fictional world of the film is given to us through Tama’s perspective. While Descartes establishes that the act of thinking is the minimal requirement to ascertain one’s metaphysical existence, Kishi contends that it is minimally required for one person to be aware of you in order to build one’s social existence.
What happens then, when you live under the knowledge of multiple people, as we almost all do? Kishi explains this in the film’s title: Double Life. In fact, most of us live more than merely two forms of social existence – some famous persons may even live thousands. Kishi is simply saying that any person, as long as he exists on a social sphere, must have a minimal of two forms of existence: one which he is aware of internally, as defined by Descartes, and another supported by the external testimony of another.
All characters in the film, being realistic representations of people in modern Japanese society, are shown to lead more than two lives, given each person’s scope of social relationships. For example, the audience only has access to the snippet of Ishisaka’s existence through Tama’s perspective, while there are major parts of his life devoted to his wife and child which we cannot see. Shinohara’s character also touches on this, as he even goes so far as to hire an actress to play his wife in order to create a more ideal version of his life for his dying mother.
Yet, in the digital age, one’s proof of existence is no longer limited to the eyes of others human beings. The film picks up on this new possibility in two ways. Firstly, it indicates, in the very opening, that the garbage-management woman has recently installed a surveillance camera at the garbage collection site to ensure that people sort their rubbish properly. Kishi even gives the surveillance camera a long, frozen shot to emphasise its significance. Throughout the film, the audience is allowed to see, through the surveillance record, various residents visit the garbage collection site. In these tapes, the person recorded is always alone, meaning that the digital surveillance footage serves as the only evidence of their existence in that instance.
The second form of digital existence depicted in the film is the intentional construction of Shinohara. Being diagnosed with cancer, his elderly mother has only two months left. In order to fulfil her last wishes, he hires a ‘false wife’ in order to reassure her that he is happily married. He takes ‘family pictures’ on his phone to record their time together, both for the sake of his mother and himself. Thus, even after his mother’s death, evidence of his ‘married existence’ still remains in his phone.
On an emotional level, Kishi suggests that among humans, the reciprocal relationship of being each other’s’ witnesses of existence are both crucial components of each person’s emotional well-being. Why is this significant? I can illustrate it with a simple thought experiment: if you imagine yourself sitting in a dark room alone, unable to see or hear anyone, it will not take long until you start to doubt your sanity and the plausibility that you exist.
While it is fairly simple to understand how someone feels self-worth or fulfilment when other people affirm their existence, it takes a little more explanation to argue the opposite.
From the beginning, Tama and her boyfriend Takuya’s relationship has been established as one with little communication, especially evident through the positioning of their desks in their flat. The shot symmetrically divides the room via the gap between them, and marks individual space by their own possessions. Thus, we may infer that Tama’s initial inability to understand what it means to exist socially is partially the result of the lack of attention she receives from her boyfriend, and the sparsity of her other social relationships.
Through the ‘stalking’ project assigned by Shinohara, she discovers a solution to her problem. Instead of attempting to grasp her sense of self by struggling with the problem of who she and what position she occupies in society, she decides to abandon the pursuit altogether. By losing self-awareness, she escapes the dilemma.
Indeed, Kishi has already hinted at this possibility in an early scene, where Ishisaka, who works as a publishing agent, advises his client. He says that the major deficiency of her story is the fact that it hardly allows the reader to invest their emotions into it, to forget the self in the reading process. This is precisely what most readers seek in a sensational novel.
Therefore, we may draw a parallel between Tama’s involvement in Ishisaka’s life with a typical reader’s immersion in the life of a novel protagonist. By saturating her consciousness completely with the existence of another, it allows her to forget the question of her own existence and the ‘void’ inside her. Indeed, in the emotional climax of the film, she confesses:
After she formally breaks up with Takuya, he moves out of their shared flat. As she turns around towards the previous position of his desk, the room’s emptiness strikes her, and us – the audience, too. It is at this point the space of Tama’s flat completely ceases to provide any proof of her existence.
After their breakup, Tama doubly devotes herself to the task of stalking, albeit shifting her subject to Shinohara, because she cannot continue with Ishisaka anymore after he has discovered her presence. The film ends with her in a shot alone, accompanied by a non-diegetic recitation of a section in her thesis. She praises the act of stalking as the best way to understand what existence consists of for a given subject.
At this point, she is no longer able to understand existence through the centrality of her own being. Only for her stalked subjects, is she able to answer what it means to exist: her very consciousness is the proof of their existence.
Kishi has answered, through this film, what it means to exist socially in modern Japan. His definition bears close reflection upon Japanese society. Unlike the Western emphasis on individualism, Japan has a much more collective culture, where each person’s self-identification relies heavily upon their belonging in a group, whether it be based on their occupation, local community, or a hobby.
Modern Japan has a rapidly expanding number of people who identify as a Hikikomori, a term applied to describe someone who lives in extreme social withdrawal. Out of fear for social interactions, they could remain in a single room or flat for months or even years without stepping out. Therefore, Kishi’s proposal that external confirmation constitutes a crucial part of one’s existence can simultaneously be interpreted as a claim that the Hikikomori do not exist socially. This chilling message ought to be able to draw society’s attention to the plight of these people.
Written by Olivia Chen. Illustrated by Andrea Miranda.