Higanjima – Escape From Vampire Island

Japan (2010) Dir. Kim Tae-gyun

With the Twilight franchise effectively ruining the vampire genre for many horror fans, turning the blood thirsty undead into teenage dreamboats, it is nice to see that some people have rebelled against this anodyne romantic vision and still want to portray vampires as the ruthless, plasma feeding beasts they are.

Based on the manga by Kōji Matsumoto, the story revolves around high school teen Akira Miyamoto (Hideo Ishiguro) whose elder brother Atsushi (Dai Watanabe) has been missing for two years. Akira meets an enigmatic woman Rei Aoyama (Asami Mizukawa), who claims to know of Atsushi’s whereabouts and asks Akira to return to her home island with her to bring him home. Akira is dubious at first until he and his friends are attacked by a vampire, saved by Rei. Now fully convinced, Akira and friends join Rei to the uncharted island of Higanjima, only to find on arrival that the island is inhabited by vampires, and worse still, they were duped!

Don’t let the fact that main protagonists are teens, this isn’t a soppy romanticised take on the vampire genre by any means – quite the opposite, with lashing of blood, severed limbs and other gory images to keep horror fans entertained. It’s a modestly budget slice of hokum without question but it has an earnest driving force and never fails to entertain.

Matsumoto’s manga ran for eight years from 2002-10 so a lot of material had to be expurgated to fill the 118 minute run time for this adaptation. The storyline and character development casualties become rather apparent as the film progresses, even if one hasn’t read the manga (like yours truly), but screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi (who scripted the two live action Death Note films) does what he can to create something which is fairly coherent most of the time.

After a rather gruesome opening gambit which lets us know what sort of violent action we can expect, the introduction of the teen cast is conducted under a more comedic tone as Akira flees from an angry classmate and his gang for dating his sister. Aiding Akira’s getaway are tough guy Ken (Tomohisa Yuge), his cute crush Yuki (Miori Takimoto), tubby Kato (Masaya Handa), sensitive Pon (Fumito Moriwaki) and nerdy Nishiyama (Osamu Adachi). With all tropes catered for Rei has quite the team assembled to help rescue the missing Atsushi and his fiancée Ryoko (Ayako Omura).

Sadly, this isn’t the case upon arrival as the group are immediately set upon by the elderly villagers who just all happen to be vampires, courtesy of the fiendish bloodsucker Miyabi (Kôji Yamamoto). For the sake of this story Matsumoto has tampered a little with the vampire mythos in that one cannot become infected and ultimately turn into a vampire through being bitten, they must have the vampire blood enter into their system before that can happen. This gives the script an out when characters are bitten yet don’t threaten the success of the mission by becoming a vampire themselves – well almost…

Coming up with a fresh take on the vampire genre is becoming a tougher task as the years go by, but Asia seems to want to meet this challenge head on, with varying degrees of success. Their trump card is how their own culture and indigenous traditional folklore can add some interesting ideas into the mix which will be unknown to many of us on the outside.

Often this is evident in the aesthetic more than anything, in both the locations and the characters appearance. Higajima doesn’t buck this trend with the island being a throwback to Edo period Japan, the inhabitants attired in old time plain yukatas and the like. For head vampire Miyabi, his style is more Victorian with the frilled shirt and smoking jacket to compliment his softly spoken gentlemanly manner, all of which goes out the window once he bares his fangs. His subordinate vamps sport pale green skin red eyes and very sharp fangs, while Miyabi himself is pale white of skin and hair. The heroes meanwhile are dressed in their modern day youth gear and stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs but to the vampires they are merely food.

While the action is the main order of the day, there are pauses for breath to move the story along and remind us that there are real people fighting an emotional battle. This is where things fall a little short as we aren’t given enough about the characters to care about, aside from Akira’s bond with his brother. It’s almost out of the blue that Yuki seems to care for Ken especially when it is suggested earlier in the film that she might like Akira. Atsushi’s reason for being on the island is entirely valid but his reason for staying so long isn’t given much explanation.

Debatably the character that suffers the most from this is Rei, who initial mystery remains a mystery to the end. We get some hints of a history with Miyabi which becomes clouded with the way the story plays out and due to the lack of vital information to fill in these gaps. Twists and revelations are one thing, not having a reason for them is another and the cramming of to many ideas has hurt the overall narrative of this yarn.

It may not have had a Hollywood level budget which was demonstrated by the CGI gargoyle in the final act which while not totally embarrassing, it looked rather dated even for 2010. Everything was well shot, looked good and the violence looked believable and suitably unpleasant. And as ever you can’t fault the cast who adhere to the Japanese tenet of giving their all which is what they did here.

Higanjima – Escape From Vampire Island suffers on the script front, but genre fans want blood, guts and action and in that respect it delivers. As mid-budget gore fests go you can do a lot worse than this energetic and claret soaked effort.

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