Japanese Title: グレイトフル デッド
Romaji: Gureitofuru Deddo
Release Date: November 01st, 2014 (Japan)
UK Release Date: January 26th, 2014
Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 98 mins.
Director: Eiji Uchida
Writer: Eiji Uchida, Etsuo Hiratani (Screenplay),
Starring: Kumi Takiuchi, Takashi Sasano, Kim Kkobbi, Aira, Itsuji Itao, Taro Yabe, Wakana Sakai, Hoka Kinoshita,
Director and writer Eiji Uchida is one to watch. With this film has created a title that defies expectations. Through his careful control of the film’s tone and its story full of death, religion, and sexuality gone awry, Greatful Dead is a real surprise that will keep audiences guessing which way it will go as we follow the central protagonist on her dark and twisted path fuelled by a personality warped by neglect. Comparisons will be made with Sion Sono’s films Love Exposure (2008) and Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) because of the themes and social commentary on individualism and the breakdown of family dynamics and the way these elements are brought together in a story about how loneliness drives people crazy and those comparison will be richly deserved.
The opening sequence for Greatful Dead will have you convinced you are watching a tragedy about child neglect. As you witness the lonely childhood of Nami (Aira) unfurled on screen you will want to hug her as she cries out for love and attention from her indifferent parents and an unhappy elder sister. Nami’s mother quickly abandons the family to look after other people’s kids in third world countries because she is obsessed with charity work. Nami’s father, who has little interest in his daughters and is obsessed with his wife, is subsequently so broken up by her departure he falls into bad company and depression. Tired of her dysfunctional family, Nami’s elder sister leaves their broken home to shack up with a boyfriend and lead a normal life because, to quote her, “normal is best.” All abandon Nami. “Don’t ignore your daughter,” she cries plaintively at her father at one point. He then promptly ignores her to spend time with a mistress and so Nami retreats into herself.
All of that sounds like the film might be a savage study in loneliness but it isn’t. These events aren’t delivered with Bergmanesque understatement, the sequences of neglect are breezed through quickly and the tone is wryly comedic with the serious situations punctured by young Nami’s understated reactions to her neglect and her narration of her history which is full of profound precocious pronouncements on loneliness. The film undercuts any sympathy we might have by showing us moments when Nami herself displays her own cruel streak and hurts others to get attention makes us question whether we would want to hug her quite so tight as sends a fellow school pupil to hospital to get her parents to pick her up and acknowledge her existence. Her loneliness has twisted her personality. With a background like hers, of course Nami develops her own strange obsessions such as an addiction to television shopping and an interest in loneliness, something that grows as she ages.
As an adult Nami (Takiuchi) then comes into a lot of money and idles her time away on television shopping and spying on people who have gone crazy from loneliness. She calls these people “Solitarians,” and with this part of the film the experience becomes quirkier, more comedic as we join her in her observations of Solitarians, a tragi-comic set of people, all nursing a painful loss or trauma which has cleaved them from others and isolated them. Solitarian specimens include a mother who has lost her son, a grumpy and bullying businessman, and a supposed murderer who listlessly tosses popcorn at birds and chases people… All emotionally damaged, struggling. Her favourites are horny old men, the more priapic and addicted to porn the better. She likes these specimens the best. Dead or alive.
She spies on all, setting out from her house in hiking gear with a rucksack containing a tent, a telescope and sporting a big grin as she cycles through the city on sunny days people watching, tracking the Solitarians as they act out their lonely and demented routines which are both sad and somewhat amusing.
These Solitarians act as a way for Nami distract herself from the fact that she is a Solitarian. She avoids her elder sister and her sisters family who offer to take Nami on holiday, and spends her time with broken people with mental issues who distract her from her aimless and moribund life.
It is not until Nami spies on an elderly gentleman named Shiomi (Sasano), a once powerful man who has lost his wife and has bad relations with a son who may be using him for money. He is isolated. Even better for Nami, his only point of human contact is taking delivery porn DVDs at home. She soon transitions from a peeping tom into a stalker as she learns everything about the man and enjoys watching him wallow in his loneliness.
Her enjoyment is spoiled by the appearance of a Christian missionary named Su-young (played as an innocent by Kim Kkobi) who Shiomi takes a shine to thanks to her good looks and finds himself learning to be a better person.
Would it surprise you if I told you that the tone of the film changes again? If the first part was tragedy, the second absurdity and morbidity, the final third goes into the downright murderous as Nami takes action to make Shiomi lonely again and he tries to defend himself and his newfound happiness of having made friends and found a cute girl willing to talk to him. We knew Nami had a darkness behind her smile but things get extreme in the fight between two lonely people and nobody is safe. Everything from kidnap to murder and more are used in the conflict and even though it sounds like a completely different film, as crazy as this sounds, the transitions are expertly handled by Eiji Uchida’s script, direction and the performances he gets from his lead actors Kumi Takiuchi and Takashi Sasano.
This mix of tones in the film takes place from the very start as events morph from tragedy and black comedy to violence. It is handled carefully in Greatful Dead, rooted in the script’s careful crafting of characterisation, Nami’s absurdly abnormal behaviour which is rooted in that awful childhood of hers, the way she is warped hinted at and shown repeatedly. Despite the morbidity in the lead character and a bitter loneliness that hangs over everyone that forms the film’s emotional core, there is a bouncy confidence, a naughty irreverence that suffuses everything thanks in part to Kumi Takiuchi who makes the film her own.
She plays Nami as a Genki Girl, dressing cute and embracing her weirdness in an energetic manner, cycling through the city with a big grin to visit her different specimens on bright sunny days and showing enthusiasm. Her smile never fades even as she does horrendous things to people. One feels sympathy for her because we know of the isolation she has gone through and even by the end, after all the violence which is absolutely brutal but funny at times, we still pity her to a certain extent as she is revealed to still be the childish girl we first came into contact with even as the arterial spray gushes forth from various people around her.
Veteran actor Takashi Sasano imbues his character Shiomi with a myriad of emotions as we watch him play a grumpy old man unable to socialise with others due to his bitterness only to blossom and open up thanks to a pretty girl, reminding us he is still human. Then he becomes a fiery warrior as Nami tries to intervene in his social life and he takes to the craziness of this development with gusto. The film never loses sight of the fact that he is an old man and remains vulnerable, huffing and puffing in fights which makes the results of his battle with Nami hard to call and all the more exciting. Behind all of this action is the desire of the two characters to connect with others which is never forgotten.
One of the triumphs of the film is that there is a degree of serious commentary about the fraying of family ties and it is expertly used in the film even as people die. A little foreshadowing of why exactly Nami feels so connected to Shiomi would not have gone amiss but these are minor quibbles because the story is a smooth and smartly written journey that takes us into dark areas. Ultimately Greatful Dead is an enjoyable film, its quick pace and lean running time makes it an easy watch and the characters who are all well-written and plug into a story about loneliness. With this feature Eiji Uchida has established himself as a director to follow because his consummate skill and willingness to tackle dark subject matter is highly reminiscent of Sion Sono.