Greatful Dead (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 98 minutes approx.
You have to hand it to the Japanese – only they can delight us with a quirky tale boasting a serious social message behind it then turn it into a brutal and unabashed bloodfest!
Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) is a lonely girl, free to live as she chooses thanks to a handsome inheritance from her late father who ignored her while he was alive. Nami has developed an unusual hobby: spying on lonely people who have been driven made by their isolation, labelling them “Solitarians”. One in particular catches Nami’s attention, an irascible old man named Mr. Shiomi (Takashi Sasano) who lives in a tiny abode, spending his days drinking sake and watching adult DVDs.
Gradually Nami becomes obsessed, possessive even, of Shiomi until a Korean Christian volunteer, Pak Su-young (Kim Kkobbi), shows up and begins to bond with Shiomi through Bible readings. The old man starts to lighten up, becoming more positive in his thinking and more open to social interaction which angers Nami, driving her to resolve the issue with extreme violence.
Writer and director Eiji Uchida – whose works include Topless and The Last Days of the World – presents us with a cautionary tale about paying attention to and looking after family members from young to old, complete with a claret soaked exclamation point. It may not appear like this film has a social conscience at heart from reading the above plot synopsis but Uchida is passionately keen to get his point across and while a violent black comedy might seem like the last style one would choose Japanese film makers are not known for taking the easy way out.
With its themes of a lacking childhood, dysfunctional families, religion and violence, the comparisons to Sion Sono’s epic Love Exposure are quick to make and easy to understand (Uchida himself admits it is one of his favourite films) but there is a case for Takashi Miike’s Audition to also be considered as an influence, largely for the abrupt tonal shift in the final act. However you wish to view it, Uchida has created something which more than stands on its merits.
Nami is introduced to us a young girl (superbly essayed by junior idol Aira) who craves attention from her mother Kyoko (Mariko Akama), who devotes her time to needy children across the world, and her father Yoichi (Kenji Matsuda) who worships his wife. Kyoko eventually leaves to follow her heart aboard while Yoichi has a breakdown and shacks up with the mysterious Atsuko (Naoko Watanabe), who secretly converts Yoichi to Christianity. Even Nami’s older sister Asuka (Wakana Sakai) runs off to live with her boyfriend and start a “normal” family.
It seems that this sense of isolation soon became “normal” for Nami, and her now twenty year-old self can afford, emotionally and financially, to spend her days watching those around her she feels are the same as her. Nami is a sympathetic observer at first, giving her subjects names and surmising their back-stories. It’s her taking selfies with dead bodies however, which is a bit creepy! One Solitarian catches her eye though, a scruffy man (comedian Taro Yabe) who routinely feeds the pigeons in the park with pop corn, who is rumoured to be a murderer.
Being a Catholic himself Uchida is less scathing towards religion than Sono was but still uses it as a direct plot device to pin point the germination of the changes that occur in his characters. Su-young and her fellow volunteer Michihiko (Masayuki Izumi) are at least not portrayed as flaky, head in the clouds, obnoxious zealots as church goers often are in satirical comedies, which makes a change although their pious intentions are easy to spot a mile off.
But the issues of Nami and co. run deeper than anything divinity can throw at them which is at the core of Uchida’s tale, mostly looking at the family unit as a main cause. As adults sister Asuka tries to include Nami into her life but the younger sibling is happier by herself. A little too late perhaps?
Literally a film of two halves, the Jeckyll and Hyde transformation in Nami from the quirky but personable young woman with a harmless if esoteric hobby to the scowling relentless killing machine is as shocking as the brutality it begets. This is juxtaposed by Shiomi’s change of heart for the better who is called upon to revert to his meaner self in order to save his life once Nami’s rampage begins.
Veteran actor Takashi Sasano, whose casting helped the film get made, is an inspired choice as Shiomi bringing both gravitas and a gentle pathos to both his role and the film overall. However this is Kumi Takiuchi’s film from the moment she first appears until the final frame. Beating three hundred other actresses to the role, Takiuchi is quirky, cute, childlike and terrifyingly unhinged in her portrayal of what is ultimately a tragic anti-heroine. Proving she can carry a whole film I hope to see more of this talented actress in the future. Hopefully the same fortune awaits the vastly underrated Korean export Kim Kkobbi who is a suitable yin to Nami’s yang.
The humour is as black as coal and the gory graphic violence may expose the low budget but Uchida’s concerns about loneliness and the age gap between young and old in modern Japanese society hits home hard, with enough force to provoke international audiences too. The whimsical first half is a genuine “calm before the storm” starter for the demented claret drenched finale with a denouement that reveals all about Nami, serving as final satirical parting stab while reminding us of the sympathetic little girl lost we met at the beginning.
Greatful Dead is a film that demonstrates how it is possible to tell a heart-wrenching story without resorting to lachrymose manipulation and saccharine sentimentality. Shockingly good fun and socially aware, this is another prime slice of potent modern Japanese cinema.
Interview with Director Eiji Uchida
Rating – ****
Man In Black