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  • Ghost in the Shell: An After-Thought on Pierre Huygue’s Human Mask
  • Michio Hayashi (bio)

The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.1

Jacques Derrida

In the opening sequence of Human Mask (2014) by Pierre Huyghe, the eye-level camera (a drone?) moves slowly and smoothly, with occasional fast-forward effects, in an abandoned village and captures the remains of ruined houses and buildings one by one.

With no sign of human presence, the ghostly structures—surrounded by empty streets, parking lots, and dysfunctional electricity poles—suggest that time there no longer unfolds through anthropocentric actions or narratives. As the camera proceeds midair into the depths of the deserted town, one hears in the background a now-useless evacuation order, coming out of a loudspeaker, reverberating in (and vanishing into) the void. The whole screen is pervaded by an eerie machinic time of unpredictable cinematic movements; in fact, the sudden shifts in camera speed intensify the inhuman precision of the surgical dissection of reality. The combination of this “post-apocalyptic” scene and the “robotic” cinematography of the opening sequence creates a strange sci-fi atmosphere and suspends the viewer’s ability to differentiate fiction and reality.

Various visual signs in the sequence, such as the style of the destroyed buildings and the letters on the billboards, suggest that the film was produced in the aftermath of the triple disasters—the earthquake, the tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear powerplant crisis—that hit the entire Tōhoku region of Japan on March 11, 2011. As a result of these incidents, hundreds of thousands of people had to evacuate their homes to avoid possible exposure to high-level radiation; although evacuees from areas at a distance from the powerplant are now slowly returning to their hometowns (there are, of course, evacuees from the same areas who have decided not to return for various reasons), many towns [End Page 81] and villages around the powerplant still remain abandoned and will remain so for decades to come because of their exposure to radiation.

The visual reference to the Fukushima incident in Human Mask, is, however, minimal. Nothing in the film clearly explains the cause of the post-apocalyptic landscape in the opening sequence or offers any notion of what is to come. For the entire length of the film, which is about nineteen minutes long, the camera stays inside an abandoned house after the opening sequence and follows the aimless movements or non-movements of a monkey—a Japanese macaque—wearing a girl-faced-mask with long hair, somewhat reminiscent of (but not exactly the same as) a Noh mask, passing uneventful time in solitude. There is no drama, no action (except for the futile repetition of erratic movements), and no scenery change. The film thus unfolds as a sort of Beckettian quasi-documentary of anti-climactic confinement and waiting. But waiting for what? We don’t know. This waiting, if this is waiting at all, seems to be completely cut off from an outside world whose shifting conditions can only be surmised by changing lights (or radiation?) behind the window, an emergency-warning broadcast that reverberates over abandoned houses and streets, and drops of (contaminated) rain hitting the roof of the house. No allusion to Godot.2 This apparent contextual vacuity or indeterminateness leaves the film open to a range of comparative analyses and, indeed, invites the viewer to drift into the space of an uncertain but fertile connectivity.

Following this evocative lure (that could well be a trap), in this essay, I have decided to let myself drift into the space of Human Mask from multiple entrance points that are not necessarily commensurable with each other. Therefore, in this essay, thematic, structural, or historical-contextual perspectives intermingle and cacophonously resonate with each other. The approach taken here is intentionally centrifugal but not centripetal; the discussion extends in multiple directions in the hope of weaving an exemplary web of interpretive threads whose configuration remains temporary and open for further consideration. The purpose of doing so is not to fold those threads back into the center to solidify a concentric architecture of meaning, but rather to...