Sunday 7 November 2010

Demeking the Sea Monster (2009)

Director: Kôtarô Terauchi
Stars: Takeshi Nadagi and Kouhei Kiyasu

I'm not entirely convinced that when the Japanese get up in the morning, they immediately think that the day would be so much better if only someone would make a giant monster movie. There are so many daikaiju in Japan that, even with the mighty Gojira on hiatus since his last outing in Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, you still can't move without tripping over one. Admittedly, Tokyo must be the best place in the world to work in construction because whenever any building gets finished, something stomps on it so you can start over, but you'd think that everyone else would have been there, done that. Yet here comes another daikaiju movie, made as late in the day as 2009, but this one turns out to be more than a little different: it's a giant monster movie without a giant monster. Yes, you should read that sentence again. To be fair, Demeking does turn up for an awesome five minute dream sequence halfway through, but that's it.

I know that's a spoiler but it's a necessary one. If you're a fan of giant monsters and you see this DVD you might be tempted to buy it, but you should read the rest of this review first or you're likely to be sorely disappointed. It isn't just that Demeking isn't a sea monster, because he isn't: he's from space. It's that this movie really isn't about Demeking and there's no way for you to know that by looking at the DVD or by reading the various publicity articles on websites by folks who haven't seen the film. Presumably over in Japan, audiences have a head start on us because the film is based on a popular 1991 manga by Takashi Imashiro and so hasn't just appeared out of the ether. The film is well made and it kept my attention throughout, but a daikaiju movie it isn't. It's worthy of comparison less to the Godzilla series and more to The Goonies, with plenty of Stand By Me thrown in there too. And if that doesn't confuse you, I don't know what will.

The opening scene is traditional: an electric meteor hurtling dangerously towards the camera, which neatly sidesteps out of the way at the last minute. Demeking is on the move and we wait eagerly for him to crush Bruce Willis and any other pesky Earthlings who might get in his way. But no, he promptly disappears and we find ourselves in 1970 in a coastal Japanese town called Akinohama City, where we meet the real characters of the story, Hachiya and Kameoka. They're quirky characters, because this is a Japanese movie, but they're played straight without any of the usual parody or outright surrealistic insanity that the Japanese are well known for. There is quite a bit of humour but it's gentle humour that arrives through character definition rather than wild situation comedy, and while we are reminded a few times that Demeking is on his way, the story is all about the people waiting for him rather than the monster himself.
Kameoka is apparently a student at Tanoura Middle School even though he's old enough to have a bald spot. He quits judo classes because his parents want him to study, but all he really wants to do is hang around with three much younger kids who comprise the Tanoura Youth Exploration Group. He draws cartoons and tells stories and gets bullied, but they all dream of adventure and that's what leads them to discover a full samurai outfit on a supposed ghost ship, and get caught by the owner, the mysterious Hachiya. While he sells grilled squid from a stall at the Mamahama Marine Park, he also rides around on his motorbike in a long red and white knitted scarf and a helmet with 'Genius' painted on it. A complete loner, he doesn't seem to understand what sex is, though an older widow at the park obviously fancies him. He has a purpose though, outlined to him in a vision and he eventually reveals it to Kameoka and his gang through a treasure hunt.

What we see in the opening half of the film is what shapes these characters. We don't see their parents but we do see them bored with the uneventful coastal life that Akinohama City exudes. Even the marine park is consistently quiet and restrained, the ferris wheel revolving lazily as if nobody would ever want excitement. Hachiya, Kameoka and the three junior partners in his exploration group are apparently the only exceptions, frustrated by the pace of the town and wanting something more. Even when these folks all meet, they seem unable to spark anything. Hachiya explains to the others that he's destined to fight Demeking, but with the air of someone who can't believe that anyone else in the town has an imagination. He asks them, 'You want adventure?' They reply, 'Yes.' So he gets on his motorbike and rides away. Yet this eventually becomes the treasure hunt and a revelation of what Hachiya's connection to Demeking really is.

Up to now we've been wondering just what the purpose of this film is, but the treasure hunt that Hachiya sends them on reminds us of The Goonies. They cycle on from clue to clue, surrounded by banal reality but end up discovering that the adventure they sought isn't remotely like what they expected. While the journey is all The Goonies, the discovery is more Stand By Me because it's grounded, a lesson in life that they didn't expect. At the end of this is the Demeking dream sequence before we continue on, wondering afresh what the story is trying to tell us but realising in the end that it's just life. These kids wonder what's next too as, with youthful impatience, they couldn't see past the end of their quest. It's all about the journey, not the destination, but life carries on and they have to find a way to relate to it, to be part of it but without ever losing the magic of childhood imagination. It's subtle coming of age stuff with surprising depth.
Unfolding at a sedate pace, with scenes that linger just a little longer than you expect, like Dead Man or much of the work of Wim Wenders, there's very little soundtrack to distract us from the story. Everything is designed to draw us in to the lead characters and the little things that build their personalities and their outlooks on life. We're not even sure quite how Kenji, Hiro and little Masaru, the three kids Kameoka hangs out with, tie to anything. Are they friends, fellow misfits, or are they siblings? We don't know. They're just there, more a part of a story conjured up within Hachiya's treasure hunt than part of the town. It could even be that they don't exist at all, only imaginary friends, there for Kameoka to feel a part of something and to bounce his ideas off. I don't think that's true but it would work just as well. This puts it vaguely into Amélie territory, as he discovers not just a connection to the world but the magic inside rather than just outside.

And while this is emphatically not a daikaiju movie, I have to return to the monster of the title to point out how frickin' cool he is. Demeking only gets five minutes of stomping time in a dream sequence because he hadn't arrived in 1970 and hasn't arrived yet, but it's five minutes of great stomping time. Visual effects artist Tsuyoshi Kazuno is best known for insane Japanese riots of imagination for directors like Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura: outrageous films like Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha. His filmography also highlights titles I hadn't heard of but will now have to seek out, like Gothic & Lolita Psycho, At the Mercy of the Darkness: Ayano's Bizarre Delusions and The One-Armed Machine Girl, not to mention The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs Strippers 5. In comparison to these, Demeking is tame beyond belief, but the monster looks like Anguirus with a very expressive snail head.

Of course now I want to see a real movie about Demeking but for that, we'll presumably have to wait not just for his electric meteor to actually arrive but also for the characters to grow up and write one for us. I get the impression that this is an autobiographical story, where Kameoka is a fictional version of Takashi Imashiro, who wrote the source manga. If I'd ever finished learning how to read Japanese, I might be able to confirm that but for now, the reality of the background is lost in a foreign language and perhaps in my head. If the manga aimed to spark imagination, in Imashiro and in those who read his work, the film could do likewise. The more I think about Demeking, the better it gets and the more resonant it becomes. I'm sure I'll return to it, but with a realistic expectation of what I'll see. The biggest problem the film has is that nobody outside Japan is going to have that on first viewing. Expect Godzilla and he won't be pissed. You will be.


jervaise brooke hamster said...


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Cheers Steve, heres hoping you`re a Heather O`Rourke obsessed lunatic just like me.