The movie works and it doesn’t work. But before I explain what I mean by this, let me just say that this post assumes you already know what the big plot twist is. If you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t read the rest of what I’m about to write. Alright then, so how do I really feel about Hal? I mean, I get what the story is going for, and a lot of it makes quite a bit of sense. Kurumi’s death was so painful to Hal that he buried his memories away, withdrawing himself from the world. Basically, he’s become a robot. So what do we do? Well, we’ll have our own little Pinocchio moment where the “toy” becomes a real boy. Ah, but therein lies the rub! Our “toy” was a real boy all along! He just has “reprogram” himself. He just has to relearn what it means to be alive, to have fun, to feel, etc. And how do we do that? By wiping the slate clean, and starting back at square one. By having Hal solve his trauma one step — or rather, one side — at a time. There’s a reason why the story makes liberal use of the Rubik’s Cube motif.
Put it this way: shortly after a major trauma, our thoughts, feelings, and memories are all a jumble. We try and try and try, but we just can’t seem to sort out what’s truly important to us. The puzzle’s too hard to solve (the pain is too much), and we seem to devise a solution (we withdraw from the world). More specifically, however, we don’t have a solution to the entire puzzle, and Hal’s “therapists” seem to acknowledge this. For sure, solving a 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube in one go is a daunting task. Likewise, getting over a major trauma, especially the death of one’s love and the guilt associated with it, is a daunting task. So instead, we have to take a different approach. We have to make the healing process gradual and thus manageable. As such, we often see Hal and the villagers solve the Rubik’s Cube one and only one face at a time. In doing so, Hal unlocks a new message from his past (as paradoxical as that sounds, thereby allowing him to confront his past life, his past memories, and his past traumas one step at a time. Who was Hal? What was Hal like? What was the relationship between Hal and Kurumi like? For a patient to face everything head on, it’s just too much. But if we take the healing process step-by-step, Hal can slowly become the “real boy” he always, well, was. So honestly, this is the part of the story that I like. What I don’t like is how they utilized Q-01’s character, but I’ll save that to the very end. First, let me bitch about the less important things.
I don’t have a problem with Hal thinking that he’s a robot. Like I’ve explained above, I understand the strategy being employed. I understand what this Pinocchio-esque therapy hopes to accomplish. Nevertheless, when I really think about it, the twist completely takes me out of the story. Why? Because how on earth does Hal not realize that he’s human? Sure, sure, the whole robot thing is an escape mechanism, but think about it for a second. The plot events unfold themselves over the course of a few days, I imagine. Maybe even longer than that. Essentially, the healing process takes time. So at no point during this whole thing does Hal ever realize, “Um, I’m kind of hungry?” Is that not a clue that he’s not a robot? Okay, okay, maybe robots in this universe are advanced enough to be able to eat human food. Unlikely, but not impossible. What about Hal’s bodily functions then? Did he not have to take a piss throughout the course of the film? Did he not have to take a shit? Surely, you can’t tell me they gave robots the ability to take a human shit, can you? I know I’m being crude, but I’m telling you, the narrative immersion went flying out of the window as soon as I realized what the twist was (there was plenty of foreshadowing leading up to it). I mean, how can you possibly explain this? Did Hal so wholeheartedly believe that he was a robot to the point that his mind went blank whenever he had to go to the restroom to do his business?
The other thing that bothered me was the sudden chase scene near end of the film, followed by the contrived tragedy to pile onto all the other shit that Hal has to deal with (not only did his girlfriend die, he was abandoned by his parents, he’s been debt-ridden and poor all his life, etc.). For forty minutes, the film had been this slow and contemplative deconstruction of a young man’s life. All of a sudden, action! Violence! Danger! Yeah, again, I get what the story is going for. Eventually, Hal’s dark past will catch up to him, necessitating that he confront it head on. But was a chase scene really the way to do it? And throughout Hal and Kurumi’s attempted getaway, did they not once consider asking anyone around them for help? “Yo, these shady people are trying to kidnap Kurumi! Could you help us out?” Of course not. Because time is running out, and Hal needs to recover his memories now. As a result, Ryu will literally knock some sense into him through a series of brutal punches to the face. Then to top it all off, Kurumi — or should I say, Q-01 — has to die in order for Hal to accept that his girlfriend was already dead. So the impression I get here is this. Yeah, yeah, therapy takes time. Getting over your emotional traumas takes time. So y’know what? Go have fun. Go dress up in a yukata and go to the festival. Go–… oops, we’re out of time. Here, have some blunt physical trauma in the hopes that you get over your emotional trauma.
Finally, let’s get to the real crux of the problem: not only does Q-01 go from being an inquisitive, child-like robot to a convincing simulation of Hal’s former girlfriend in such a short period of time, I don’t see any narrative value in killing the robot off. I get why Kurumi has to die in order for Hal to move on, but Q-01 is not Kurumi. I mean, we never really see the real Kurumi. Rather, we only see her through photos, videos, and Hal’s flashbacks. For the most part, however, that makes sense. After all, she’s dead, and that’s a fact that Hal has to accept. The problem is, other than a very brief moment at the start of the film, we never get to see the real Q-01 either. Despite being one of the main characters, the poor robot spends most of the film pretending to be someone else. In a story all about a “robot” learning what it means to be alive, it doesn’t sit right with me how Q-01 ends up being nothing more than a disposable tool in Hal’s healing process. We never really get a good sense of who Q-01 is or how it really feels about everything. If Q-01 hopes Hal will regain the will to live, then why did it give up on its own life so easily? It came along to fix Hal’s problems, then when it is no longer needed, the story discards it. Hell, Q-01’s “Pinocchio moment” is to serve as Hal’s catharsis and nothing more.
Sigh… I don’t know. I like what the film tried to do. Although a lot of people complained about the pacing in the first half of the film, I actually didn’t mind it. I like the idea of peeling back the layers of Hal’s character. His situation even reminds me of Joel’s story in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There, a guy also wanted to lose his memories of his girlfriend, but instead of death being the catalyst, they had merely gone through a painful breakup. As he was getting his memories erased, however, Joel also got to relive them one last time. Through the course of the film, he slowly realized that there were a lot of happy memories between him and his girlfriend that he actually didn’t want to lose. As a result, he had made a mistake. The same sort of thing is happening here. Hal wants to withdraw from the world because the trauma of Kurumi’s death is too painful, especially when you consider how their last moment together was an argument. With the help of Q-01, photo albums, recorded videos, etc., Hal slowly realizes, however, that he had shared a lot of happy moments with Kurumi, and he should probably hold onto them. And like with Joel, choosing to forget his life with Kurumi was a mistake.
That being said, I just don’t like the film’s execution. I think the chase scene is unnecessary. I don’t like the twist, because intended or not, it tells me that the story doesn’t have enough confidence in Hal’s healing process to play it straight. So instead, we’ll take the cheap and easy way out and hit you with a plot twist. Not only that, there are too many elements in the story that I just don’t find believable. Therefore, I couldn’t lose myself in the Hal‘s universe as much as I wanted to. Most of all, Q-01’s fate doesn’t sit well with me. Too bad, really. The parts that do work are pretty good.