Maybe I’m a bit of a romantic, but the story of Romeo and Juliet, those most famous of star-crossed lovers, is a story that never seems to get old. There’s something fundamentally appealing about two people that want to be together but can’t, and Patema Inverted is, in a very literal sense, Romeo and Juliet for the far flung future. It’s not the Montagues and the Capulets keeping the would-be lovers Patema and Age apart however, but gravity.
Patema lives in a dark, subterranean world. Since it’s all she’s ever known, it’s not so bad, but like any decent subterranean world, rumours abound regarding another place, one up above. And like all decent heroines in the making, Patema on some level longs for the freedoms that mysterious and unknown world represents. However, archetypally speaking, these ‘other’ places aren’t without their risks, as she learns when she’s attacked by a frightening ‘bat-man’ while playing in the quarantine zone, missteps, and plummets — straight up!
Soon enough she’s clinging to a fence with nothing but sky below her and she is quite understandably terrified. Her whole world is suddenly upside down, and there’s nothing to stop her from falling forever. And this is where almost all the narrative focus of Patema Inverted lies – in this fundamentally unstable reality, in the idea that something as certain, as immutable as the laws of physics can in fact be merely a matter of perspective, and that going beyond the boundaries of what is known can bring both danger and reward, for those brave enough to venture.
The film’s themes aren’t exactly subtle, given that Patema soon meets her above-ground equivalent. Age lives in a starkly Orwellian world where everything is ordered and no one is allowed to stand out, but like his father before him he longs for change, for escape – the ability to defy the laws of gravity and fly. When he finds Patema clinging to fences and ceilings, it seems a friendship made in heaven – Age grounds Patema (literally) and Patema’s naturally lighter-than-air state gives Age the wings he’s always desired. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and this wouldn’t be an archetypal story without the villain, Izamura, whose obsessive and somewhat creepy issue with Patema and her people, not to mention access to brainwashing media coverage and a bunch of scary shocktroops, helps – sometimes without much believability – propel this story along to its conclusion.
Where this feature excels is perhaps not in its fairly basic narrative but in its idea – the concept of two worlds at such inconsolable odds that there seems no way they will ever see eye to eye has a great deal of universal currency, and Patema and Age working together to bridge that gap, sometimes literally, is fairly effective as an emotional hook. While neither of these things are focused enough to make this film a real social commentary, I’d argue that that wasn’t the point. It certainly isn’t some kind of “Fukushima allegory” as one review I read suggested. The details of writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s imagined world are both fantastical, in the traditions of the science fiction novelists of old, and delightful. The wonder and the hope that Patema and Age experience when they meet and realise what they can be together is a wonder and hope the audience can briefly share. So too the terrors. If this is allegory at all, I’d say it was for the spirit of discovery, for growing up and stepping out of our comfort zones in search of new knowledge – always a risky proposition but eventually worth the cost.
Patema Inverted is running in the 2014 Japanese Film Festival Program around the country October to November. Check the website for details and tickets.