Sunday, March 29, 2009

TOKYO ZOMBIE (2005) d. Sakichi Sato

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The writers, directors and producers who came up with the idea that zombies could be more than just frightening fiends were geniuses. Whether it was the social commentaries of George Romero’s films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or DAWN OF THE DEAD, the absolute wackiness of Ray Dennis Steckler’s THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED UP ZOMBIES, the punk-rocker slapstick and salaciousness of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the tongue-in-cheek hilarity of SHAUN OF THE DEAD or even the irritating foolishness of CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, zombies have and can come in many wonderfully entertaining forms and the diversity of their manifestations is what makes the zombie subgenre especially terrific. Sadly, some zombie films, like the living dead themselves, can shamble aimlessly, occasionally showing bursts of energy, only to sink back into a sedentary shuffle that turns out to be no more exciting than going to an Alzheimer’s Ward Jitterbug Contest. TOKYO ZOMBIE is a nearly perfect example of the prior statement. It is a film that has some very entertaining moments and reaches for an assortment of comedy styles, but in the end it is like a trip across the Great Plains, where there are moments when the starkly beautiful landscape can bore you to tears until all of a sudden something appears on the horizon to relieve the monotony for a spell, only to return to the weary trudge through sameness once again.

TOKYO ZOMBIE is the story of two peculiar laborers, Mitsuo (Micchan in the English subtitles) and Fujio, two men who are not terribly motivated unless it is something to do with Ju-Jitsu. After a brainless accident involving their boss requires them to ascend the slopes of the awesome Mountain of Rubbish and toxic waste Matterhorn known as “Black Fuji”, our heroes witness the genesis of an army of zombies. Stumbling down the sides of the trash peak and devouring all manner of citizens in their path, the zombies spread death and chaos through a city of people who seem equally as brain-dead as their attackers. Mitsuo and Fujio make awkward attempts to dodge these nightmarish locomotion-challenged flesh-eaters and try to subsist to the best of their limited abilities. After a number of accidents, personal setbacks and years pass, the zombies are triumphant and the surviving members of Tokyo’s human population are forced to live a life of even more mindless entertainment and boorish behavior. At the center of this bizarre travesty, our heroes are forced to come to terms with their meaningless existences in a ridiculous showdown reminiscent of something like a mentally-challenged hybrid version of HIGH NOON and LAND OF THE DEAD.

One of the most troubling aspects of TOKYO ZOMBIE is that there are many facets of this film that are praiseworthy, but in the end it is an exercise in endurance to reach the conclusion of this 104 minute partial snoozer. From a purely technical standpoint, TOKYO ZOMBIE looks and sounds quite good. It is shot well and the exterior and interior sets are effectively utilized, whether they are real or computer generated. The zombie make-up is creative, professional and looks authentic; there is just the right amount of gore, the living dead stagger about and snarl semi-menacingly in occasionally scary but usually comical fashion that reminds me of an interpretive dance troupe. When it is being used and that is not the case often enough, the soundtrack is quirky, jazzy and sets a fun and light tone. The characters are likable and their eccentricities do not grate and cause revulsion, rather the reverse. Despite the problems that beset TOKYO ZOMBIE, the main characters grow on you after some time and the primary actors, Tadanobu Asano (Fujio) and Sho Aikawa (Mitsuo) do a very good job in their portrayals of these asinine and yet somehow lovable buffoons. Even the story has its strengths. When the narrative is focused on being off-beat, unpredictable and totally twisted and the humor is a steady mix of well-timed, brisk physical wackiness with some thoughtful social commentary, TOKYO ZOMBIE succeeds brilliantly. There are heads being whacked off in some wonderfully irreverent ways and a “Calpis Commando” with an excrement Gatling gun. Sound moronic? It is, but in the best sense of the word. Why can’t I give a film with such obviously bright moments a hearty slap on the cinematic posterior and say I loved it? The reason is to be found deep in the inner reaches of Japanese movie psychology and film-making “nuts and bolts”.

TOKYO ZOMBIE suffers from a problem that often besets Japanese movies, they can be “leisurely” paced and wander aimlessly like a five year old set adrift in a carpeting warehouse. I have seen many Japanese live-action films of the horror, action, comedic and dramatic genres and far too often they feel like they should be ten to twenty minutes shorter at the very least. This is harsh criticism from a man who tends to like European motion pictures for the reason that they are more “patient” than there American brethren. I like Asian movies of all types, especially those from Japan, but the pacing of their flicks can be a deadly weakness and in the case of TOKYO ZOMBIE it is a fatal flaw. Every time the humor intensified or the action got going, jokes were held just a bit too long, sometimes far too long. In addition, the plot sharply veered off course, taking the story in unneeded and unwanted directions that slowed the tale down considerably. The unpredictability of TOKYO ZOMBIE was often its greatest strength, but when one minute the main characters are fighting zombies while trying to find their car keys and the next there is a lengthy and dull interlude in an abandoned night club that drags like ice melting on a pond, precious opportunities are being lost. Character exchanges and interplay were often far too involved over meaningless points. At times it felt like the theme of the citizens being no less dim and inane than the zombies was being carefully developed, but at other times the story just felt like it was an experiment in being odd and hopefully funny. Certainly odd was achieved but funny was less consistently attained and that was a shame because there were times when TOKYO ZOMBIE surprised me with how madcap it could be and how much I liked it for its goofiness. If TOKYO ZOMBIE had been tightened up a bit more in the editing process and had the pace of this film been just a bit more lively, it might have been a real pleasure to watch.

One of the great benefits of this disc is its rich collection of Bonus Features. There is a 53 minute long and very comprehensive “Making of the Dead” documentary filled to the brim with cast and crew anecdotes and recollections as well as “behind the scenes” footage. This is one of the more extensive “making of” featurettes I have seen in some time and I thoroughly enjoyed my journey into the back story of this project. There are two “Actor Interviews” segments, one that is 10 ½ minutes long set on a TV show right around the 2005 Tokyo premiere of the film and focusing on the two male leads. A 4 minute sit down interview follows it. Both are excellent and in-depth despite the difference in style and length. There is a 10 ½ minute “Cast and Crew Q & A Session” with five cast members at the 2005 Opening Day. Set on a stage, the repartee of this featurette is especially enjoyable. A 10 ½ minute “Actor In-Store Appearance” at a special event at HMV with the two male leads is very different in style from the usual interview segment. Finally there are three TOKYO ZOMBIE teasers and two full trailers, rounding out one of the most feature-centric extras caches I’ve had the delight to delve into for some time. Even though I couldn’t rave about TOKYO ZOMBIE as much as the film makers would have liked, my amblings through the supplements made my experience a little more enjoyable. For all those who don’t have the foresight to load up a disc with goodies, let this be their object lesson on why bonus features are ALWAYS a good idea and a “bare bones” disc is ALWAYS a mistake.

TOKYO ZOMBIE is not a bad film and there are likely to be many people who will like it. It is a little naughty at times, looks and sounds good and hits the mark on occasion with both slapstick and sarcastic comedic thrusts. It may be that I am just a jaded old man equally as bald and bitter as Mitsuo and a bit too worldly. I have been fighting off zombies in my own arena of mortal combat for too many years and possibly this film hit a nerve that wouldn’t have been the case with another reviewer. I think not though, for I can sense a slow mover early on and have learned to sniff out snoozers in all their forms. TOKYO ZOMBIE was not a total bore nor was it a narcolepsy triggering movie, but I was thankful I had gotten a good night’s sleep for I hate it when I doze and my head strikes the remote sharply. That old remote can’t take much more punishment.