Dir: Takashi Miike. Japan. 2014. 117mins
The teen ‘death game’ genre splattered onto our radar with Battle Royale before eventually becoming sanitised and Hollywood-ised in The Hunger Games. Now it gets the Takashi Miike treatment: and who better than the prolific cult director to turn a violent, garish, but also cannily ‘emo’ last-man-standing manga into a violent, garish, cannily ‘emo’ live-action film. Miike is clearly working here with a slightly larger budget than normal, though it’s not one that stretches to 3D; floor-shaking sound effects are probably the main bait for theatrical audiences in a film aimed squarely at teens whose video games long ago inured them to classy CGI visual effects and ultra-violence.
Despite a mid-term drag, there’s no denying the schlocky appeal of some of the set pieces.
Battle Royale fought all the censorship and shocked-moral-majority battles back in the day (it’s still banned in Germany, among other territories); like the younger daughter of the family, As The Gods Will - which premiered at the Rome Film Festival - should have few problems on this front, partly because the violence, while graphic, is so cartoonish, and in the tradition of teen mangas, narry a kiss disturbs the intensity of its long-nurtured but undeclared schoolyard crushes. Shot through with Japanese cultural references and enough language games to give a subtitler a serious migraine, this is a film that will play younger at home, with overseas audiences skewing more towards the older fanboy category. Manga fiends and Asian cult completists will see it as essential – though most will probably end up viewing it outside of the theatrical circuit.
We’ve hardly had time to turn off our mobile phones when the blood starts to Jackson Pollock the classroom walls. The twist in this particular death game, or survivor story, is that each level is based on toys or cultural icons familiar to kids – most of them, apart from a final Matrioska sequence, specifically Japanese. The first is easily the most exhilarating and darkly comic, partly because it comes so unmediated by scene-setting: in fact the first victim (a girl, of course) has already been decapitated when we dive into a high-school classroom being terrorised by a scary ‘Daruma’ or dharma Buddha doll.
The drill is soon learnt: each murderous toy or icon will subject its teen playthings to a simple playground game, with losers punished by death, thus forming an elite of survivors. This first game is grandmother’s footsteps (a.k.a. statues or red light, green light); others will include a cat and mouse tag game in which a giant ‘maneki-neko’ beckoning cat figurine – a good luck charm familiar from a thousand sushi parlours – devours human mice, a ‘who’s that behind you?’ blindfold challenge, and a truth game.
True to form, the handful of survivors will include, alongside the hero – dishy ennui sufferer Shum (Fukushi) – an evil anti-hero, Takeru (Kamiki) who tries to convince Shum that they’re both alike, and no less than two love interests, the main one being sweet, characterless girl-next door Ichika (Yamakazi). The script and set pieces raid pop psychology, teen existentialism, J-horror clichés and disaster movie tropes – bizarrely, it transpires, part of the way in, that all these death games are taking place all over the world in giant white cubes floating over major cities (cue circling helicopters and standard-issue alien-invasion crowds), while a subplot involving a reclusive computer geek hints at some sort of human agency behind the whole far-fetched farrago.
Despite a mid-term drag, there’s no denying the schlocky appeal of some of the set pieces. This is cinematic umami, and part of the enjoyment, after that wild, body-strewn first scene, is simply seeing what the director, scriptwriter, production designer and CGI people will come up with next – the answer at one point being an evil windsurfing polar bear. What’s missing, for anyone outside of the hardcore fanboys, is any real character development or sense that the film is more than a lurid attempt to give form and (blood-spattered) body to teen fantasies about one’s parents, teachers and peers simply not getting the fact that one is the Messiah, come to earth to save mankind.
Production companies: Toho Eiga Co Ltd, OLM Inc
International sales: Toho Co Ltd, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Yusuke Ishiguro, Misako Saka, Shigeji Maeda
Executive producer: Minami Ichikawa
Screenplay: Hiroyuki Yatsu, based on the manga Kamisama no Iu Toori by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura
Cinematography: Nobuyasu Kita
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Production designer: Sou Hashimoto
Music: Koji Endo
Main cast: Sota Fukushi, Hirona Yamazaki, Shota Sometani, Mio Yuki, Nao Omori, Lily Franky, Ryunosuke Kamiki