Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go, is among the most emotionally powerful books I've ever read. Never Let Me Go is set in a boarding school, where the children are special. As they are being instructed to create art and take care of their bodies, they are told only the bare minimum about life, especially their purpose in life. Unlike regular people, the children at Hailsham have a very specific purpose. Their future is determined for them and set in stone, but the children don't really understand what this means.
In the novel, this premise is slowly revealed only with the discoveries of three friends, Kathy H, Tommy, and Ruth as they grow up in this unusual world. Never Let Me Go is science fiction, but not at it's emotional core. The heart of the story in within Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth and is in fact the most epically tragic love story I have ever read. Knowing that the soul of this story isn't about the alternate present day reality of the United Kingdom, but the betrayals and love between three friends, I could not imagine a major motion picture based on this story. This is a subtle and romantic story, who's setting elevates it to a devastatingly tragic tale. How could such emotions possibly be evoked by a film?
But it is easy for forget about those films that stay in my heart for days, weeks and sometimes years later. Maybe not in exactly the way that Never Let Me Go has, but my attraction to Japanese cinema is because of a knack for telling a profoundly moving and personal drama. I have to take these films in small doses, but Ozu's Tokyo Story and Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs are incredible for just how moving they are while being beautiful. So it shouldn't really be a surprise to learn that Mark Romanek decided to draw influence from the films of Ozu and Naruse. And the result is breathtaking.
In Romanek's film, the love story and relationship dynamics between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy remain intact, but the visual nature of cinema allows other aspects present in the novel to over shadow the romance. Actually seeing the children at Hailsham trade the only currently they know, large plastic tokens, for items they regard as treasures, but are in fact junk was powerful. And seeing the interaction between the students with the people who live outside Hailsham was heartbreaking as they looked down on the students with pity or disgust. Never Let Me Go transcends the romance genre into a study of class and caste systems. We see how the world views these characters, not as people. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's only value is the organs they incubate, but they are sheltered from the reality of their social status; kept away from society not for their protection, as they were told as children, but so society isn't reminded of why humans live longer and healthier then in past generations. It is easier to ignore ethical questions, when a new class of humanity can be created and deemed to be not human, but special.
This is all expertly communicated in the film in a way that flowed over me echoing the book, but also breathing a different, new life into the characters that reains tragically short and completely beyond their control.