Wednesday 24 November 2010

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Director: Sakichi Sato
Stars: Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa
It's been entirely too long since I've seen a Tadanobu Asano movie, so one in which he wears an afro seemed like a good choice for a Saturday night. Here the Japanese Johnny Depp plays Pon Fujio, an unlikely hero who works at a fire extinguisher plant in Edogawa, Tokyo. Then again, his co-star, Sho Aikawa, is even more of an unlikely hero as Mitsuo, Fujio's friend and colleague, because he's a bald man apparently afflicted with stomach cancer who sees teaching Fujio the martial art of jujitsu as his last mission in life. And yet, as the title suggests, this is a zombie flick, in its vague way a Japanese take on the previous year's Shaun of the Dead, at least for a while. Halfway through we get an animated interlude, then it turns into a sort of Japanese gameshow version of Metropolis with spiritual overtones. Yeah, that does sound kinda bizarre, huh? Well, if you weren't paying attention, it's a Tadanobu Asano movie. What do you expect?

As befits a film that is hardly your traditional zombie flick, it hardly has a traditional source for its zombie apocalypse. Nearby that fire extinguisher plant is a mountain of garbage called Black Fuji, which looks somewhat like a upturned funnel that scrapes the sky but is comprised of trash of every description, up to and including illicit corpses. Fujio and Mitsuo get the opportunity to bury their own illicit corpse when their boss goes a little nuts over their habit of ignoring work to practice jujitsu. Black Fuji beckons through the window and hey, everyone else is doing it, right? Well, that's just one take on the commentary behind this zombie plague origin, but whatever the environmental subtext, the illicit dead begin to climb out of their illicit graves and Tokyo soon falls. Being a Japanese film, the first victim is Fujio's old home room teacher, a pervert who gets his wedding tackle eaten by a zombie while he's examining a stack of dumped gay porn mags.
Thus far we're not sure what we're watching. It's quintessential Japanese weirdness but there's nothing that really pushes the envelope, which is a little disappointing given that sometimes it seems that pushing the envelope is all that modern Japanese movies do. Sure, it's dark humour but it's generally universal dark humour. The Japanese flavour comes out in a few details, such as when an old man stumbles upon a schoolgirl zombie crashed out on a pile of trash bags and his first impulse is to look up her skirt. Mostly the zombies are pretty sorry creatures, without any real menace or presence. When they arrive at the fire extinguisher plant, they're just props for our heroes to practice jujitsu moves on. At least they provide better zombie lemmings than Resident Evil: Afterlife, and given that that was one of only two positive things in that movie I only need to find a better swathe cut through a zombie horde and its last positive note vanishes.

For the longest time it's just Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa, which is fine because they're both awesome whatever they're in. Perhaps this is so subdued because nothing was likely to outdo Funky Forest: The First Contact, the surreal trip of a movie Asano had made earlier the same year. He got a bit more serious in 2006, making only two movies instead the seven he churned out in 2005, following those up with his take on Genghis Khan in the Russian picture, Mongol. I haven't seen anywhere near as much Sho Aikawa as I have Tadanobu Asano, and with his newly shaven head I didn't recognise him from films like Pulse and Dead or Alive: Final, made at the beginning of the decade. For the longest time I didn't even realise it was the same actor who had shone in the title role of Zebraman for Takashi Miike a year earlier. While it took a while for the filmmakers to persuade this pair to take part, they're well cast in these quirky roles.
Just before the halfway mark we get a third live character, a young lady named Yoko who they rescue from her convenience store robbery going bad. This is after the zombie apocalypse, so civilisation has already fallen but she decides to steal the cash register anyway. I'm sure there's some sort of social comment here but I was too busy looking at the cool outfit she had on to notice. And as soon as she joins the cast, everything changes. To try to keep a semblance of continuity here in synopsis is impossible, so I'm just going to look at Tokyo Zombie as two films that happen to share the same actors. From a subdued zombie comedy, it jumps five years in a single bound and becomes a science fiction yarn that is never comfortable being both serious and wacky at the same time. The wacky parts look out of place but still beat the serious parts to death in the middle of a metal amphitheatre where men fight zombies to satisfy rich old women.

Asano is an able slacker as the Fujio of the first half of the picture and he's an able fighter as the Fujio of the second, but there he suffers from not having much Aikawa to bounce quirkiness off. Erika Okuda looks great in her debut picture as Yoko, but her character is too frickin' annoying to pay too much attention to. She doesn't get much to do in the entire film, just annoy us and look good while doing so. Even her silent screen daughter gets a punchline. Director Sakichi Sato saw this as the most untouchable work of Yusaku Hanakuma, who wrote the source manga, and I don't think he managed to overcome that hurdle. Watching the extras I got the feeling that he never expected to actually make the picture at all, but a somewhat misguided producer kept the film alive and he saw it through. That doesn't always work out and usually for good reason. Producers are good at getting films made, they're not good at picking the right ones to make.

It's obvious that Sato tried to make something out of the source material but the task proved too much. He'd already demonstrated his skill as a scriptwriter, having written two highly popular Takashi Miike movies, Ichi the Killer and Gozu, and he obviously impressed the stars of those films as they came to work for him here. Playing the psychotic yakuza in Ichi the Killer was one of Tadanobu Asano's many finest hours and Sho Aikawa got a particularly complex lead role in Gozu. They both have a ball here with their strange hair, or lack of it, and they play the film dry and straight. They're both great fun to watch, but unfortunately we really just watch them rather than what they're doing within a larger story. The inconsistency and lack of any real focus may work better in the manga, but in and amongst the slaves to Calpis and wrestler zombies in monkey masks, we're just taking the opportunity to watch Aikawa bald and Asano in an afro.

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