I Am a Hero
アイアムアヒーロー「Ai amu a hi-ro-」
Release Date: April 23rd, 2016
Running Time: 126 mins.
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Writer: Akiko Nogi (Screenplay), Kengo Hanazawa (Original Manga)
Starring: Yo Oizumi, Masami Nagasawa, Kasumi Arimura, Miho Suzuki, Yu Tokui, Yoshinari Okada, Nana Katase,
I Am a Hero is the best zombie film to have come out in a long, long time or at least since 28 Days Later (2002) when Danny Boyle sent fast-running infected across the streets of London. Much like the aforementioned title, I Am a Hero has zed-heads that tear across the screen and they are very scary to behold and much like the classic titles of the zombie genre such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) it features some social commentary. Also, unlike tongue-in-cheek J-horror zom-comedies like Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies (2008) and Big Tits Zombie (2010), I Am a Hero is serious and rooted in our world and gleefully slaps it sideways in a gory horror film that does justice to its source.
The story follows Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi). Although the kanji character for his name means hero (英雄) he is hardly a zombie slayer. When we first meet him he is a quiet man lost in the crunching gears of Tokyo’s neo-liberal manga world. A one-time rising star, he is reduced to being another artist’s assistant and is struggling to make his own manga, struggling to pay the bills, and struggling to keep his girlfriend Tetsuko (Nana Katase) happy. Things get a lot more serious when Tetsuko becomes infected by what is known as the ZQN virus thanks to a zombie bite and soon Hideo is washed away in a flood of zombies.
Hideo has one thing going for him in this zombie apocalypse: he has a rifle. Staying just one step ahead of the chaos, he flees into the countryside with a high school girl named Hiromi Hayakari (Kasumi Arimura). Their destination is Mount Fuji which they hear is a safe zone but things get complicated when Hideo discovers Hiromi is infected with the ZQN virus and they get waylaid at a mall where a group of survivors are holed up on the rooftops. There they meet nurse Yabu (Masami Nagasawa) who hopes she can help Hiromi but first Hideo will have to contest with the other survivors who turn hostile.
Based on Kengo Hanazawa’s same-titled manga, which stands at 22 volumes in circulation after it was first published in 2009, its first eight volumes have been adapted into a lean script by Akiko Nogi, a lady with form in live-action adaptations having worked on Ore Monogatari (2013) and both the 2013 and 2015 adaptations of Library Wars directed by Shinsuke Sato. Nogi goes for the clear and concise approach by opting to streamline Suzuki’s character development by hiving off the scary hallucinations he had in the comic book which could alienate audiences and emphasising his realistic and relatable traits of a lack of confidence and lacklustre determination. She quickly intertwines this with his character development through real-world concerns and relationship troubles that point out the weaknesses he must overcome and then the rest of the film gives him a series of challenges that push him out of his comfort zone.
I’m highlighting Nogi’s work a lot already because in adapting a lengthy manga she retains its soul. She does the build-up perfectly by using some brilliant drive-by exposition such as news reports and internet gossip to make sure we are aware that a mysterious virus is spreading through Japan and then sets up a chain of conflicts for Hideo. We quickly understand his meek nature from the opening 20 minutes where he is slow to react to negative developments and slower to commit to action and we get a satisfying arc as he grows from meek and diffident into a true hero complete with a set of awe-inspiring battles where he focuses on his skill-set, uses his rifle and looks seriously cool thanks to the low-angle shot and moody lighting. And this is where I transition into talking about Shinsuke Sato.
This film is beautifully lensed at all times and Shinsuke Sato really knows how to kick the action into high gear as best exemplified during the morning rush-hour, a familiar routine in Japan, which acts as a shortcut to show society falling apart when all manner of people are attacked and then at the mall where Suzuki gets an epic last stand.
Each action section he shoots is choreographed brilliantly with a cast of actors, stunt-people and extras all set in complex balletic motion to create little scenes of horror that come together into a massive sequence of chaos until the screen is awash with a mass of people fleeing dead-heads that creep, crawl, leap and loll into dumb-founded bystanders and wannabe heroes. Seeing the infected is terrifying.
Just like the manga, the zombies here are everyday people mutated into awful, awkward, threats. Exceptional make-up which gets the veins showing, skin turning blue, and the blood dripping, is combined with some fantastic CG transformations for a dose of gross up-close mutations but what really sends shivers down the spine are the stellar physical performances where zombies either try to carry on with daily routine with slow and barely coordinated movements or, through CG, turn into a furious whirlwind of limbs that flail about at impossible angles while they utter phrases linked to their former personas.
Imagine a cross between the zombies of World War Z and Pontypool and you will have a good idea of how menacing and frightening they are. Nana Katase as Hideo’s girlfriend does well in this regard as she nails the horrifying transformation and the physically sickening movements to create a creepy character moment with some pathos. Indeed, much like other zombie films, the walking dead here are trapped in loops of behaviour and could be a comment on conformity and consumerism.
The action scenes are great but so are the quieter moments and Hideo’s conflict at the out of town shopping mall offers some further satire of society as we see NEETs and hikikomori’s enjoying newfound freedoms in the breakdown of law and order and displaying the worst traits of human nature. Nogi adapts the manga beat-for-beat in this section and the characters feel fleshed out enough to leave a strong impression. They are the type of people we vaguely know and the film puts them in a test of bravery and finds that not everyone can be a hero and that heroes come in all shapes and sizes.
The actors all capture the looks of the characters well and they do not disappoint in movement or speech as could have been the case. Yo Oizumi as Hideo Suzuki does that meek everyman act well and adds a large dose of staggered disbelief which makes us fear for his safety as he struggles to get his brain into gear and show his heroic side in every conflict. He does well to insert some comic scenes amidst the danger to keep his character charming.
Masami Nagasawa as Nurse Yabu displays low-key fiery courage and grit that keeps Hideo focused and while she doesn’t quite get the rough edges of her original character she is believable as a woman willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Kasumi Arimura gives brief life to Hiromi Hayakari before being asked to simmer down as her character development demands. The two ladies balance Yo Oizumi and give him good motivation without becoming mere tools for plot and character development. Everyone else sells their roles and made me care about what was happening on screen.
This film is so good I watched it about five times and never got bored of it once. As a fan of the manga I was fascinated by how much the live-action adaptation retained of its source while also looking and moving like a big-budget action experience and the film remains faithful. Indeed, I could see frames from the manga replicated in the action and felt that seeing them being given life by real people worked well. That is a testament to the power of the source, that I could remember it, and also the film which did it justice.
At the end of the film I was left happy and also pondered whether I would be able to dig deep like Suzuki and overcome character faults. I hope I am also a hero…
Other zombie films tackled by me include Wild Zero (1999), Zombie Self-Defence Force (2006), High School Girl Rika Zombie Hunter (2008), Undead Pool Attack Girls’ Swim Team vs. the Undead (2007) and One Cut of the Dead (2017). There are more but these are the notable ones.