As the Gods Will
Romaji: Kami-sama no Iutoori
Release Date: November 15th, 2014 (Japan)
Running Time: 117 mins.
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Hiroyuki Yatsu (Screenplay), Muneyuki Kaneshiro, Akeji Fujimura (Original Manga)
Starring: Sota Fukushi, Hirona Yamazaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mio Yuki, Shota Sometani, Nao Omori, Lily Franky
As the Gods Will is the big-budget adaptation of a horror-survival manga series written by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and illustrated by Akeji Fujimura. I picked up on it at the end of last year because it looked great and was directed by Takashi Miike who has gone back to his V-cinema horror/action roots as of late. The DVD/blu-ray was released at the end of May and I’m happy to report that this film doesn’t disappoint fans of Miike. The film is a star-studded affair with talented actors like Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shota Sometani, Lily Franky being led by Sota Fukushi in a tale about a bored schoolboy who wants a bit of excitement in his life and gets more than he bargained for.
As the Gods Will starts with feathers falling over a set of characters (symbolism I’m sure we all know) and those characters, Shun Takahata (Fukushi), his childhood friend and secret crush Ichika Akimoto (Yamazaki) and fellow students named Takeru Amaya (Kamiki) and Satake (Sometani) each look directly into the camera and say something to God, something that sparks off a series of a deadly game…
“Kami-sama, my life is very boring.”
“Omae…for what purpose do we live for?”
Then we get taken directly into the first of a series of death games. We don’t know it at first, our introduction is a shock. The camera pans up the headless body of a school girl lying on a classroom floor. A series of shots reveal that the place is a mess. Students stand stunned amidst heaps of bodies, books lie open on the ground, desks overturned, crimson marbles scattered about everywhere. Then we hear a deep-throated jovial voice cackle and say, “Daaaaaaarumaaaaaa-san ga…. koronda!”
A large devilish Daruma is playing a deadly game of ‘Daruma-san ga Koronda” (here’s a video explanation) and worse still is the fact that there is a timer on his back counting down – explosives? It sits on the teacher’s desk, a rictus grin and huge bloodshot eyes widening with glee everytime it catches someone moving because it can then make that person’s head explode in a spray of blood and marbles. One person, Satake has his wits about him. “Don’t move. If you move you’ll die!” He starts trying to figure things out, thinking through out loud for the benefit of his classmates and offering a degree of exposition for the audience, while our main character in the story, Shun, is at the centre of the class doing his best not to move as the Daruma tortures the kids in the room with the threat of a very messy death.
This is but the first set-piece of the movie and director Takashi Miike has a ball playing up the violence with super-colourful, slow-motion shots of heads exploding into gouts of blood and marbles that he tracks with manic editing and a fluid camera so we see them as they hit light fixtures, splash windows and people, and scatter everywhere. The bright and pleasant classroom is rapidly turning into a scene of a massacre as Takahata and his classmates are spilling all over the place trying not to get caught moving by the Daruma while trying to figure out a way to stop it. Suffice it to say that not everyone makes it out of the class alive.
Shun Takahata does and he is exhorted to live by his torturer the Daruma. Standing amidst the heaps of bodies, looking at the chaos, he pleads, “God, give me back my boring life.”
Shun is not alone as Ichika bursts into his class. It turns out that she and Shun are not the only survivors but their joy is muted as they are about to enter another spectacularly gory set-piece involving a giant cat in the school gym…
I cannot reveal anything more than this because a lot of the fun is seeing how the film evolves and it is quite unexpected and exciting as a result. What I can say is that what takes place is a series of death games that are based on traditional Japanese children’s games. We later find out that high school kids are being forced to play these events worldwide (so a British version of “daruma-san ga koronda” is “grandmother’s footsteps”) but for Japanese kids they have to run a gauntlet of hellish events dictated by a devilish Shiratori game from hell.
This sutructure (mostly lifted in order from the manga) gives the script firm direction for events which get ever more bizarre and spectacular, cerebral and grisly as people are thrown into familiar children’s games made terrifying because they have a deadly edge with death guaranteed for the losers. Chief amongst the dangers is the fact that the creatures running the games are memorable villains who delight in eating, smashing, crushing, and tearing apart their prey and all with a sense of joviality so the film
There’s a Tom and Jerry quality to the exaggerated violence and the way the villains play the most gruesome things for laughs. While the actual deaths are delivered with stomach-churning brutality that would normally be hard to watch, the tone of these scenes is softened by the way the monsters deliver the violence with a smile and a funny voice which sounds like a demented announcer on a Japanese gameshow.
“Don’t be like that, we’re here to have fun!”
There is an amiable air to the monsters. Their happiness and politeness precedes a pounding by oversized paws and powerful tails, headbutts, and claws. Humour is definitely key in getting past the absurdly horrible ways that people die and the ways that life can be cruel but you will be in awe at the skill of the survivors, their ability to outwit their opponents and use lateral thinking when faced with the horrifying all the more remarkable.
Furthering the distance between horror and comedy is the bright colour schemes that coat the cheery arenas of death in later parts of the game. When the survivors complete a task and enter the next level we see the world transform from, say, an icy tundra into an pirate fortress in the Carribbean of sorts. This fun-filled black humour and gaudy approach to this sort of subject matter makes this death game feel less like the miserable and minimalist films with a similar set-up like the 1997 Canadian film Cube and something more like the cheery anarchic video game Warioware.
Admittedly, things do slow down after the first two set-pieces as more plot and narrative is unfurled through drive-by exposition from news reports to show how the world reacts to this deadly game (because parents are probably missing these teens), we also see characters set up for a possible sequel such as a mysterious man (Lily Franky) walking about Tokyo to a hikikomori tracking events (Nao Omori) online. After the shock and awe of the first two events, the pace does indeed become more contemplative as Shun is fleshed out and world building takes place and the events monsters become much more devious, the games more elaborate instead of explosive. That written, things still look gorgeous and the events are still maniacally action-packed and painful and it looks gorgeously cinematic.
This is a film made for the big screen and it is clear to see a lot of money, care and attention have gone into the details to make each environment. Each environment comes to colourful life and is a joy to look at because of all the detail. The cinematography, art direction, and set-design and editing make the atmosphere feel closer to an anime, the constant visual inventiveness such as intense cutting between characters trying to work together to thwart a monster as narration explains complicated co-ordinated moves, the bad-tish moments when a plan goes spectacularly wrong and the camera quickly cuts or zooms to a character left gawping in horror just before they are embedded in a wall. This is cartoony at times and proves to be brilliant fit for this story. Despite having read the manga there were times when I almost spat out a drink out or laughed ferociously at the appearance of some monsters.
Also coming off cartoonish are the characters. They aren’t given the deepest exploration by the script (there just isn’t time to do that when a giant kokkeshi is lasering you in the head) but anybody who has read the manga (or any death game manga, for that matter) will recognise the evolution of the characters from apathetic and disaffected high school students to more assertive and go-getting leads because they realise the price of life and what they could lose. The film does this simply with a few scenes Shun living his ordinary life spiced up by skipping school, shoplifting and playing video brutal games like Resident Evil 6.
His life is one common to many aimless teenagers living in the relative safety of the developed world, a fact pointed out when he flicks through television channels and watches a new report of a terrorist attack in some God-forsaken part of the World. Darkness and self-loathing, love and admiration, all of these roiling emotions are delivered in a flashback and confessions or sometimes (just sometimes) by holding hands. That is as far as the subtlety goes in terms of character development. It is fun watching the students band together or fight each other, as is common with death game films.
The real meat in terms of the characters comes from the actors. As our lead character Shun Takahata, Sota Fukushi is solid and nothing more. Fukushi has never looked better than when he is scared and clueless during the games or indifferent about life but he is a bit bland in most other regards and I’ll echo another reviewer and say when placed with other actors, no matter how small the role, he is acted off the screen. Lily Franky gets a few seconds scattered throughout the film but his final line and his delivery blows up the scene he speaks in. Shota Sometani as Satake has a somewhat comedic ending to his role but I was left thinking he could have carried the film.
Mio Yuki and Hirona Yamazaki as potential love interests find something of an unreceptive target despite their best, energetic and emotive efforts. I don’t want to call Fukushi’s acting wooden (he’s far from a petrified forest) but he plays Shun Takahata like a plank sometimes, especially when confronted with the opposite sex.
The really charismatic actor, the one all eyes will be drawn to is Ryunosuke Kamiki as the bully Amaya. Kamiki’s angelic looks and sweet smile hide a heart of horror, black gulfs of hatred for people and a lack of empathy so chilling he becomes the most dangerous person in the game, never mind the giant monsters. Other characters may learn to work together but he is out for himself and it is always hilarious (always) seeing or hearing how he survives! One of the biggest laughs in a film rife with black humour is when Mio Yuki’s character Shoko Takase updates Shun on Amaya’s whereabouts after a nasty game,
“He beat up the kokkeshi got the key and ran off.”
Out of context it sounds weird, in the film it made me laugh hard. Amaya is a beast. Every scene with him is funny and troubling as it points out just how much of a psychopath he is.
And that’s it. I’m pleased to report that As the Gods Will is a good-looking and entertaining film which will shock, surprise and entertain. It has fantastic production values and a great set of actors and it can easily be had on DVD/Blu-Ray if you have a multiregion player. There are two arcs to the story, the first, which this movie is partially based on, ran in Bessatsu Shounen Magazine and was published from 2011 to 2012. The current arc is in Weekly Shounen Magazine. So there is room enough for a sequel to be made, the question is whether one will get a green-light from the studio. The last time I checked DVD rankings, As the Gods Will wasn’t doing too badly so hopefully the Gods will allow a sequel to be made.
Disclaimer: I am an old-school Miike fan. I grew up on films he made (and Shinya Tsukamoto, Hideo Nakata, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Yasujiro Ozu… the list goes on) so I am fond of his works and have seen a lot in a cinema – I remember seeing some of the audience leave just before the final, glorious sequence of Gozu, how I felt sorry for them. I am a little bit indulgent and don’t mind a bit of gore on screen but for this film I felt strangely relieved that actual teenagers weren’t recruited for the really harrowing parts. Anyway, See my reviews for his other films!