Japanese Title: 生きてるものはいないのか
Romaji: Ikiterumono Inainoka
Japanese Release Date: 18th February, 2012
UK DVD Release Date: 22nd October, 2012 (Third Window Films)
Running Time: 113 mins.
Director: Gakuryu Ishii (aka Sogo Ishii)
Writer: Gakuryu Ishii (Screen Adaptation), Shiro Maeda(Original Story, Screenplay)
Starring: Shota Sometani, Rin Takanashi, Hakka Shiraishi, Asato Iida, Mai Takahashi, Yumika Tajima, Ami Ikenaga, Kota Fudauchi, Keisuke Hasebe, Hiroaki Morooka, Tatsuya Hasome, Eri Aoki, Konatsu Tanaka, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Shoshiro Tsuda, Tateto Serizawa, Chizuko Sugiura, Jun Murakami
Isn’t Anyone Alive? is the latest film from Gakuryu Ishii (formerly Sogo Ishii), a director I have recently discovered after watching his talky serial killer thriller Angel Dust which I loved. This is his first film after taking a decade out to take up a teaching post at Kobe Design University. Ishii once again shows his skill as a director but instead of cult killers he is tackling the absurd.
The film takes place over the course of a day in Jinsei University and campus which is a maze occupied by a variety of characters like an escaped female patient named Miki (Konatsu Tonaka), a love-sick doctor named Naito (Tateto Serizawa) and the object of Naito’s one-sided attention, a fellow doctor named Maki (Eri Aoki), the two of whom are rushed off their feet because of a rail disaster.Meanwhile, Maki’s brother Koyuchi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is looking for her and encounters a pop-idol named Shoji (Tatsuya Hasome) from the group Orient X-press who basks in the attention of female students like Eiko (Ami Ikenaga) and Enari (Yumika Tajima) who, along with Andre (Kota Fudauchi), are planning celebrations for the wedding between Ryoko (Rin Takanashi) and her fiancée Katsufumi (Asato Iida) who are both meeting with his pregnant mistress Kaori (Hakka Shiraishi) as they discuss who owns the baby while a waiter named Keisuke (Shota Sometani) serves them. But wait! There’s more! Three students Nana (Mai Takahashi), Match (Keisuke Hasebe) and Katsuo (Hiroaki Morooka) discuss an urban legend connected to the university hospital and US Army experiments. Soon they are joined by a mother named Sachie (Chizuko Sugiura) who is looking for a lost son and a survivor of the railway disaster named Yama (Jun Murakami) and his friend Doctor Fish (Shojiro Tsuda) just as people start dropping dead. Could all of these people be on the verge of discovering whether the urban legend which is linked to the end of the world be true and why is everyone dropping dead?
Does it even matter if they discover a link? No. This being a film about the absurdity found in life and death, whether or not there is a link, source or solution is entirely irrelevant. It just happens¹. This film is based on an absurdist stage play by Shiro Maeda.
A film steeped in the absurd?
Essentially nothing in the film has meaning and all human actions are ultimately meaningless. A world stripped of all frameworks like logic, law, religion and science becomes a scary place where rationality and communication break down and, as a result, life and death can be seen as ultimately facetious. This results in the situations and the reactions of the characters to these situations becoming comedic².
Where are we going? / Nowhere really.
Shot in the gloriously evocative sterile and orderly location of Kobe Design University, the talky nature of the film is an indication of its background as an adaptation. Thankfully, far from being an inert experience where words wash over the viewer, Ishii uses many editing techniques to affect how the audience responds to the unfolding disaster and expand the sense of the absurd.
In the first half of the film he uses cross-cutting to cover the different people around the campus who have meandering and ultimately pointless conversations. When following the conversations, he constantly and rapidly switches between mid-shots, reverse cutting and split screen to show different characters, and dolly shots when characters are on the move. His quick editing injects life and pace into the film. Then as the disaster unfolds and life recedes, the takes become longer, the editing calms down, the film entropies. If this is the apocalypse then it is a very dull one.
This change in energy affects the viewer as the feeling of ennui permeates the film and the crisis never feels like one. Indeed, the dead bodies don’t start stacking up until the half-way point after quite a lot of banal chat. The repeated cutting to clouds scudding along the sky, flying birds and trees blown in the wind removes any sense of emergency that might be felt in such a situation in other films. This is a chat-pocalypse where banality is the norm. Even if the décor of normality is perpetually under threat you never notice or feel it, rather, you feel that everything is pointless.
While I have not seen the original play, I believe that this change in mood is conveyed well visually and shows how film can be used to convey ideas. It helps that there are actors that can convey banality with such gusto.
We all die eventually/ I know… We have done nothing bad.
The film attempts to give the greatest coverage of all of the characters and the relationships between them. The large cast are given equal screen time to flesh out characters but they are never truly three dimensional, but then they are never meant to be. They are only broadcasting enough information to draw out a level of empathy and quirks to make them slightly interesting but they are ultimately trivial characters. The film sets them up for a gag death that reveals their pointlessness but amidst all of the fatalities are moments when humanity shines brightest, where thoughts and feelings become clear. People show the depth of their feelings for loved ones, the desire to remain unknowable and the fear of being alone but even these moments can be undercut with deliciously dark humour.
This being a banalageddon, death comes at the most inopportune moments for many characters, usually robbing people of dignity and their final wishes. Surreal deaths that always (always!) end in strange contortions, characters starved of oxygen and juddering to a halt. These contortions are great for the stage where a physical presence if felt but I found it disappointing for the screen. The feral instinct of death has been subsumed into banalageddon and while it has some funny moments, the lack of variety meant that there were diminishing returns. If only more thought had gone into making the death scenes different I might have found it funnier but Maeda’s dark sense of humour can only go so far.
Furthermore, the large cast of characters mean that there will be a few you might not like and the moments spent with them might feel like a drag.
The most effective moments come from actors we do feel attached to.
I became attached to veteran actors like Mai Takahashi who essays the cute, chatty and thoughtful Nana, Jun Murakami’s stoic but essentially young at heart Yama, Kiyohiko Shibukawa as the impish brother searching for his sister who grins even as death surrounds him. Newer actors like Shota Sometani impressed me as the waiter, probably one of the more sure-footed actors who radiates uncertainty and Rin Takanashi, one of the women I adore (shallow, I know). They create the most vivid characters and I found them the most interesting.
You still love me?
And yet, whatever criticism I may have, I liked the film. But then I have a weird sense of humour and my likes veer towards the dark. Visually stunning and mostly well-acted, I was engaged at the end and had a dark laugh. What you get from the film I cannot guarantee as it relies on the receptiveness of the audience to absurdity. People judging it from a rational point of view will find its absurdity tiresome and the slightness will make repeat viewings unlikely. Anybody with an interest in the absurdity of life will find this a nice little intellectual treat.
¹ For a better reading of the absurdist elements of Isn’t Anyone Alive? check out Alua’s review
² I tend to cite absurdism in old reviews like Crime or Punishment?!? as part of existential readings. Whether or not my readings and deployment of such terms is correct…