Experimental Reviews

Monorail (2020) – 4.5 stars

Director: Shizuko Tabata

Running time: 7mins

The train journey as a cultural phenomenon is a deceptively complex affair. Listen too long to the ramblings of tired elitist hacks like Michael Portillo, or the slow-television enthusiasts of BBC 4, and you might similarly start to believe every time you step aboard a carriage, you were undertaking some kind of transcendental, interdimensional odyssey from a Frank Herbert novel.

When sitting on a train, the elevated position of the tracks does admittedly often make for a more engaging vantage point than the seat of a car or bus. Extracted to some extent from the chaos of the road, and further from the shadows of the looming tower blocks of the modern city, you might feel as though you were privy to some kind of all-encompassing view of the world – positioned as an omnipotent deity at the centre of infinity. During the daily commute between two decidedly confined little boxes, it is an attractive delusion – but a delusion nonetheless.

Shizuko Tabata’s short animation is a remarkable achievement then – not only because it manages to calm your wandering mind long enough to sit through a Monorail ride without looping a certain Simpsons song throughout the seven minutes, but because it manages to encapsulate the paradox of the allegedly infinite yet repressive world so many of us live in.

The duration of the film sees thousands of still images from a monorail journey meticulously arranged into a painstaking stop-motion sequence. Gliding through the changing Tokyo landscape, we move between bustling housing complexes and imposing business districts, and glimpse the artificial greenery of sporting compounds before eventually catching glimmers of nature on the city limits. From this position, as a world of imagery flashes before the viewer’s eye in seconds, we are God.

It is here that the director’s method of framing comes into play, however. The imagery has always been positioned within a photo-frame – something which we might initially be accustomed to, because we view ‘the world’ through a host of similar portals. If not a train window itself, we are being accosted by far-flung imagery through our televisions, phones or computer screens – reality seemingly bending to our will.

The thing that ultimately shakes us from this delusion is that Shizuko Tabata’s lens begins to shift – obscuring ‘our’ view of the world around us. While small portions of steel, concrete or sky still peak out from the corner of the frame, we suddenly realise we are not nearly as omnipotent as we might have felt.

On the train, what we believe is ‘our’ view is the flashing imagery of a world we can no-longer experience, thanks to the exploitative confines of our working lives, or the social expectations which come with home life. In this film, meanwhile, ‘our’ view consists of what someone else has elected to share with us – it is a fabrication, the true essence of which we are alienated from by the choices of someone entirely divorced from our experience as viewers.

Time and again, I come back to the important point that I cannot assuredly tell readers of Indy Film Library what an experimental film like this means, or what its creator hoped to achieve by creating it. What I can say in the event of an experimental film of this quality, patience and craft, however, is that it has all the raw materials in place to make its audience think. It can encourage them gently to reflect on their lives, on their little plot in a seemingly infinite environment, and how they are limited in their interactions with said environment by the expectations of society, or the institutional mechanisms that constantly interfere with their experiences. The very idea a seven-minute animation about a train ride could do that is little short of remarkable.

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