After the refreshingly b-grade brilliance of Versus, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered just what director Ryuhei Kitamura would do next, and whether he wasn’t merely a flash in the pan filmmaker. Released two years after Versus, Alive, Kitamura’s second feature length film, is a sci-fi thriller based on a seinen (guy’s) manga series by Tsutomu Takahashi, and it proves one thing at least resoundingly, or perhaps two – Kitamura is no one-hit-wonder, and budget – or even lack thereof – is still no excuse for a bad story.
Alive is as relatively b-grade as Versus was, but instead of rushing headlong into the action, it takes its time, building up gradually to its climax. Tenshu Yashiro (Sakaki) has unexpectedly been given a second chance. On Death Row for killing the men who raped his girlfriend, at the last moment he is saved and transferred into a mysterious experiment where, even if he is still imprisoned, he is at least alive. The unchanging setting for much of the film, the single large locked cell Yashiro wakes up in, makes for a claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere rendered in gun-metal greys and grime, and as conditions deteriorate, so do relations between Yashiro and his fellow guinea pig inmate, Matsuda (Shun Sugata).
This is not an experiment Yashiro is expected to survive, obviously, otherwise they might not have put him in a cell with a serial murderer. But Yashiro has his own issues, and as the controlled and torturous conditions worsen, battering at their individual psyches, Yashiro realises there is a greater purpose than just observed breakdown – the mysterious researchers are preparing him for something. Of course, any hetero male who discovered that the something they were being prepared for was Ryou (Gemini, Azumi), as Yurika Saegusa, they might think they’d died and gone to Heaven rather than Hell, but there’s a bit of a catch. Yurika’s body is host for something nasty, and in order to get it – the entity or organism or whatever it is – out, the scientists, one of which is Yurika’s sister Asuka (Kyouki – The Last Samurai, Pulse) have to find someone to transfer it into.
And everything is going swimmingly, at least from the scientists’ point of view, until the military gets involved. Which always means bad things for the hero, but good things for the audience; the box Yashiro has been kept in soon breaks open in a fairly spectacular way.
This is where Kitamura’s comparatively lower-than-Hollywood budget is probably the most telling though. The majority of the film is moody and tense, with some nice flashbacks indicative of Yashiro’s not so balanced mental state, but when the action starts, during the film’s climatic confrontations, the sfx begin to range from the sublime to the ridiculous. On one hand, there are moments like Yashiro’s pretty power up, where as the new alien host he gets to take his powers out for a walk, and it’s easy to think a few better paid directors could probably learn a thing or two in moments such as that. But then again, there are all the weird lights and waves, which seem a bit tacky and gratuitous but are probably there to cover up things even more tacky, like Zeroes’ (Tak Sakaguchi) wrinkly rubber suit that folds a bit at the back while he’s throwing a right hook. And is it me, or has Japan never really gotten the hang of the martial arts film the way the Cantonese have? Lacking a sword, their fight choreography never quite has the same masterful, natural moves as the staples of Hong Kong cinema (but then again that’s forgivable – no-one does kung fu films better than the Chinese). There are still some nice moments though, and Sakaki is interesting and charismatic enough that he can capably carry most scenes. He even manages to make the action look fairly convincing, all things considered. Go him.
But still, in a way even the dodge special effects and the hit and miss application of digital CG is a part of Kitamura’s appeal. With him, story is king and no amount of slick and perfect effects will take the place of a bucket of corn syrup and allura red food colouring. While a little lighter on the corn syrup, Alive is still a solid testimony to the fact that when it comes to entertainment, money isn’t everything.