Monday, July 23, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12: Isn’t Anyone Alive?

You might expect the end of the world would get played up more in the media.  Unfortunately, they only have time to report a few train crashes before it is pretty much too late for breaking news bulletins.  Indeed, the end comes swiftly but dramatically for the residents and visitors of a sleepy provincial university in Gatukyu (formerly Sogo) Ishii’s Isn’t Anyone Alive (trailer here), which screened last night at the 2012 Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Japanese Cinema.

Adapted by playwright Shiro Maeda from his own stage drama, IAA is about as reserved as apocalyptic films ever get.  The darnedest comedy of manners, it takes its time establishing a group of college students, only to start killing them off. 

Evidently, this campus has two specialized fields of study: medicine and urban legends.  Maki is a medical technician receiving an unwelcome visit from her ne’er do well brother.  Nana is the chair of the urban legend studies association, who has been advancing the campus myth that high level military research goes on in the hospital’s third sub-basement.  When people start keeling over, they naturally blame the hospital’s apocryphal black ops projects, but it is all balderdash Maki assures anyone still alive to listen.

Frankly, we never have any real idea what is going on, because nobody has enough time to determine anything.  Yet, when facing the apocalypse, those still living struggle to develop a new etiquette for impending collective death, which is nonetheless ignored as often as it is observed.  There is a lot of razor sharp dialogue and distinctly black humor in IAA.  Frankly, it is rather a bummer when Nana is the first character to go.  However, it is just as well for her.  In Ishii and Maeda’s bleak world, the last one left standing is the cosmic loser.

As Nana, Mai Takahashi exhibits an upbeat screen presence that would ordinarily mark her as the leading candidate to survive a conventional horror movie.  Rin Takanashi, Hakka Shiraishi, and Asato Iida also hilariously play out one of the unlikeliest love triangles, as the world burns unbeknownst to them.  Yet it is Shota Sometani who nicely turns IAA’s defining scenes as the decent work-study café employee Keisuke, through whose eyes the audience ultimately sees the totality of it all.

IAA is one of the oddest end-of-the-world movies you are likely to see.  Yet, cinematographer Yoshiyuki Matsumoto makes it look eerily believable, slowly but surely transforming a sunny afternoon into an ominous Judgment Day.  For those who enjoy their cinema dark and slightly off-kilter, it is definitely worth taking a gander at when it plays at this year’s Fantasia Festival (7/31 & 8/3), but naturally Japan Cuts screened it first, presenting the North American premiere last night.