In HOMUNCULUS (2021, streaming on Netflix), a Japanese film based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto, the line between truth and illusion dissolves when a homeless amnesiac undergoes a medical procedure that gives him the ability to visualize people’s innermost traumas. Packed with interesting ideas and enough human drama to be engaging, this is one of those films I tried on a lark with minimal expectations and found to be a real gem.
Nokoshi lives in his car next to a park, unable to remember much about his past, unable to feel much of anything. One night, he is visited by Ito, a strange young man who is a medical intern experimenting with trepanning, an ancient medical procedure of drilling a hole in the skull that goes back to the age of Neanderthals. (Some theorize it was a medical procedure to relieve brain swelling, but there is substantial evidence is was ritually performed among some peoples to allow spirits to pass in and out of the body. Today, some believe trepanning increases brain metabolism and can be used to achieve a higher state of consciousness, allowing one to experience the world like a child.) Nokoshi agrees to the procedure in the hope he will be cured of his amnesia and be able to feel again.
The procedure slowly works, but with a catch: Nokoshi can now see people’s traumas visualized as a symbolic part of themselves–a man visualized as a child encased in a robot, and so on. Further, he is able to dissect this trauma, called a homunculus, and take it away from people. A gift and a curse, which lead him back to the source of his own trauma that caused his amnesia, and a discovery that offers both horror and redemption.
I found HOMUNCULUS a terrific movie. Due to its manga origins, it has an episodic feel, and it may strike some viewers as being a little meandering and slow. Watching it, I felt like I was viewing a way darker ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. There’s a sex scene that appears to be assault even though the act is ultimately curative and the result of illusion, which some may find objectionable. Overall, HOMUNCULUS is weird, strong without being demanding, and packing enough titillating ideas to keep me engaged.