Dir. Sakichi Sato
Film #10, of Wednesday 10th October, for Halloween 31 For 31
Sakichi Sato will be someone I will entirely grateful to for two reasons – he wrote one of Takashi Miike’s best films Ichi the Killer (2001), and wrote another Miike gem Gozu (2004). Tasteless on surface reflection, both films however hide fluxuating puzzles that undermine conventions of what would be expected to happen and subvert the conventions of ‘extreme Japanese cinema’ Western viewers were accustomed for through directors like Miike. With Gozu, turning in a pan-sexual, meandering road trip which, for all the lactation and ladles up a man’s arse, played with what a mystery story should represent, what character dynamics should be, and what one gets out of it all. Ichi the Killer played a riskier game, full of misogynistic violence that got it accused of misogyny and cruelties of their most graphic that lead to one sequence being removed for the UK release, but within its centre a doubling-in and questioning of itself that undermined the concepts of sex and violence through ultraviolent comic book logic. It also dared the biggest gamble even for this area of cinema in having an ending purposely disappointing for us and the characters within it, anti-climatic and not sating the bloodlust it creates in the first three-quarters to remind you of your fallacy. Sato with Miike made very brave films even for Miike’s stereotypical image, making a film directed by Sato immediately interesting for me.
When a zombie outbreak starts in Tokyo, originating from a garbage mountain where corpses and industrial waste is also dumped, friends and co-workers Fujio and Mitsuo (Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa respectively) find themselves having to deal with the results. Mitsuo also desires to teach Fujio the martial art of jujitsu combat, a gift that Fujio will both need and lead to a crisis of faith as the zombie apocalypse moves forward around them.
A comedy horror manga adaptation, it is worth mentioning that low budget genre films like this are very different from their Western cousins most of the time in terms of quality. Usually they are better made, to the point the technical side of their creation is better in terms of composition and the image quality itself; I have little knowledge on whether it’s different cameras and other equipment the Japanese filmmakers use over the Western film crews, or if it’s different ways of using the same tools, but generally there is much more better quality as a result. The Japanese view of special effects too, that it is not realism that matters but the concept itself, has also been the lower budgeted films’ godsend, the willingness to accept the artificially of the practical and CGI effects and concentrate on the effect and creation of them, allowing the area to meld with the films they’re in far better than Western counterparts whose attempts at state-at-the-art technology, or serviceable effects, usually become dated or painful to sit through unless the techniques behind them are very subtle and/or clever, or if they emphasise the fantastical of it instead like American practical effects at their best. And of course, Japanese low budget genre films have more frequency to obliterate any sense of good taste and rationality to their ideas, as in the case with Tokyo Zombies when there are at least a few child molestation jokes within it.*
The film had a promising beginning, helped by the two main actors. Tadanobu Asano has become one of my favourite actors, a screen presence that is able to stand out and improve any role, even in the underrated Hollywood blockbuster Battleship (2012) in a main role. His co-star Sho Aikawa is just as solid an actor, visually recognisable if you have seen as many Takashi Miike films as I have. Sadly Tokyo Zombie, despite having a few chuckles and clever uses of background sight gags, is not a good film at all. The humour, a laid back deadpan style that works very well at first, starts to lose its quality as it goes on, eventually descending into the repeated use of the word ‘retard’ at Fujio’s expense, by a female character Yoko (Erika Okuda) who contributes little to the plot or to like about her, or very flat jokes. The film also starts to lose steam greatly after the first signs of the zombie plague, the interactions between the main actors not enough to save something that is not going anywhere in the middle section. Even when the film takes a drastic shift in plotting at this stage, going from an animated piece into a what-if scenario of what would happen in an outbreak like this acted out, the film still doesn’t work. The two leads are not allowed to interact again with each other until the resolution, the female character Yoko is pushed into the plot without any real purpose for actress Okuda except to say ‘retard’ over and over again, and an odd additional push to drama muddles the tone greatly. Considering how the film starts - a gently paced story which is still filled with some twisted and stone-faced jokes that made me question the DVD’s 15 certificate even if they’re less explicit as most Japanese genre films can go to – it’s a sad drift downwards into a mediocre state as the rest of it goes into. Of course, Japanese low budget genres films are just as mixed in quality as the Western ones, but there is a sense, at least from the ones released in the UK, that the quality is a little bit higher for films like this in that they have something vaguely interesting in them or catch you off-guard.
In terms of Japanese zombie films, I’ve only seen a couple, one so long ago the judgement of it is probably questionable now, but mostly they are more recommendable to you the reader if you are interested in this area. Zombie Hunter Rika (2008), a far more low budget film, is a lot more interesting and amusing horror comedy, while Junk (2000), despite being years since I saw it, still lingers in my mind occasionally as a solid film despite being only suitable for a small audience. Tokyo Zombie should have been the best so far for me of the bunch considering the talent involved, but sadly the director-writer’s own creation fails far below the quality of what Gozu or Ichi the Killer presented. As I said before, I will be indebted to him greatly for those two films...but not for this one.
* For British readers, considering the white elephant in the room that’s appearing in our news frequently since the start of the month involving the late Jimmy Savile, Tokyo Zombie's jokes on the subject felt a little too close to the bone for me in hindsight of viewing it yesterday night. Neither does it help that, while I take the real life case seriously and would never joke about it, the jokes presented in the film are completely unfunny unless they weren’t supposed to be jokes in the first place. It does however prove that concepts like it are possible to view in different lights even during a nationwide scandal, as evidence that I can separate the two from each other and not concern myself about it aside from this additional comment. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject, and I am not going to get into a discussion about it aside from admitting the connection.