On August 9, 1945, at 11:02 in the morning, the West dropped a bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, leaving shadows etched into the street where people had been standing prior to being incinerated. Reiichi is a five-year-old boy whose family, acting on suspicion, secedes from society to live in a womblike cave before the bomb drops; the move saves their lives. What scars the boy and becomes his life's obsession is an alleged reel-to-reel tape recording of the blast. Shibata's bizarre joke is that the tape is silent -- it exists solely in Reiichi's imagination even though he spends the rest of his life attempting to re-create what he thinks has been recorded. It's like déjà vu twice removed.
NN-891102 follows the boy from ages 5 to 59 with stops at 13, 18, 20, 25 and 31, and at each interval he toys with various means of revisiting the bomb. The firecrackers he uses as a young teen become bigger and more dangerous as he ages; at 18, he willfully straps explosives to his torso, and the detonation gives him the literal scars he managed to avoid at 5. Admittedly, he's oddly focused, but the obsession gives his life a purpose it might not have had sans Nagasaki.
New chapters are introduced with intricate shadow puppets, as if Reiichi's quest has become the stuff of legend. (The technique links back to a shadow play of the blast that a theater troupe enacted in a town square to his and his young friends' horror and amusement.) In college, he finds a major that involves sound, and his dissertation centers on recording heartbeats underwater. His peers and professors are quite taken with his dedication, even if they don't understand it. When Reiichi eventually graduates and enters the work world, his job -- no surprise -- is recording sound for an organization called Environmental Agency. Neither is it alarming when, at 31, he fathers a child who doesn't cry or speak. His wife thinks their son is cursed when, in fact, the baby is the mute apple of his father's ear.
The movie is enslaved to the idea that sensate memories are both real and faulty, recalling Brian De Palma's 1981 Blow Out, itself a tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup in 1966. Where the latter detailed a photographer's obsession with an image that may have captured a homicide, De Palma's movie switches the faculty from the visual to the aural. John Travolta plays a sound effects artist who has inadvertently caught the sound of a gunshot immediately preceding a presidential candidate's fatal car accident, and the future of the free world and a couple of street walkers hinges on what was or wasn't heard.
As with Travolta and the gunshot, Reiichi indeed hears the bomb. But Shibata's not held hostage to traditional storytelling. The fact that there is silence on the tape made in 1945 doesn't deter Reiichi from his all-consuming quest to match what he believes is there; the preponderance of evidence (and the subtitles) tell us it's blank, but Reiichi's internal recorder has registered every second. If you're into logical scenarios, NN-891102 probably is not for you. Patience will be rewarded, though, as the movie is languidly perverse and never less than chilling.