As The Gods Will (Kamisama no iu tôri)

Japan (2014) Dir. Takashi Miike

The king of subversive Asian cinema, Takashi Miike, must have enjoyed his school based Lesson Of Evil so much that he chose to return to the classroom for this live action adaptation of the manga by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura.

With typical Miike bravado he starts the film mid sentence so to speak as we join a class full of students – some already dead – as Daruma, a disembodied Japanese demon head, holds court with a game akin to musical statues. The students have to press the red button on the back of Daruma’s head to stop the game but can’t be seen moving when he turns round. If they do, their heads explode!!

The sole survivor of this game Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi) escapes to the school gym with his childhood friend Ichika Akimoto (Hirona Yamazaki) where another group of students in mice costumes are attacked by a giant white cat with a basketball hoop around its neck. To end the game they have to slam dunk a large cat bell through the hoop, but even if they survive the games are far from over.

I’ve not read the original manga so I have no idea how faithful Miike’s adaptation is to it but the immediacy of the horror and the frugal use of exposition suggests that squeezing as much content as possible into two hours is the key objective. The manga series was split into two parts, the second with a different cast, so we can assume that the key story of the first part is covered here.

However it is this condensing of the material which will make for a confusing experience for anyone unfamiliar with the manga, as scenes set beyond the school feel extraneous and inconsequential. Aside from the arrival of a giant white cube which hovers above the school and traps the remaining students – labelled by the medias as “God’s Children” – inside a fantasy world, there is little else here to affect the main story.   

An adult otaku Takumi (Nao Omori) with only a couple of fleeting glimpses and a teasing final act announcement is one particular loose thread, along with the school principle who publicly resigns his students to their fate, his swift appearance feeling expositional only. And the reveal concerning an infrequently seen dishevelled vagrant (Lily Franky) yields more questions than answers.

Similarly the message of this story appears to have been lost during the transition from page to screen, which we can assume the manga delves into on a greater scale. For instance, duplicitous student Takeru Amaya (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), is driven to survive by believing he has been chosen by God, although Japan’s ambivalence and interpretation of religion is demonstrably ambiguous and esoteric.

One of the games featuring a giant snowboarding polar bear involves the players being truthful, designed to put their morals to the test, as anyone caught lying will result in a fatality. This of course brings out some repressed personal feelings among certain members of the group but with Amaya among them, a happy ending is not ensured. But again the lack of sufficient character development lessens the emotional impact beyond the superficial.

Whether we truly understand the meaning behind the games or the overall concept is somewhat irrelevant as the visuals and the world building of the game zones once the cube arrives (akin to the Crystal Maze in terms of variety of settings) is enough to at least keep the viewer invested in the action.

Suffused with Miike’s dark sense of humour and unique ability to make the grotesque oddly palatable, this is one facet of the film which is immune from criticism. For instance, in the opening game when a student’s head explodes, after the initial blood spurts, the claret turns into small red balls to create a surreal but gore free presentation for the easily squeamish.

Violence may be a common trait of Miike’s films and there is a healthy dose of it present here too, but this subversive treatment of it adds a layer of nightmarish fantasy to the proceedings. The sense of dread and horror of the games should feel undermined by the sight of the students in mice costumes but the entire premise is so absurd that we let it go as a presumably intended satirical swipe at the horror genre.

Despite the dark subject matter and prevalent killings the overall aesthetic very bright and sub-futuristic, as though the sterility of the effusive light is meant to distract us from the impending fatalities. The settings use both space and confinement to instil a sense of dread and hopelessness in the audience towards the students’ cause yet cleverly have us forget that the real enemy is among the group itself.

Because of the extremes of the individual the antagonists, CGI is employed to bring them to life. The cat and polar bear look animated but are still fantastic, while the Kokeshi dolls are superbly rendered and feel coldly menacing. The Matrioshka dolls straddle a fine line between amusingly cute and unnerving but creepiest of them all is Daruma, a superb animated creation.

Primarily a young cast the performances are uniformly solid and committed yet no-one truly stands out since most of the characters are fairly similar anyway – Amaya is the only one whose persona defies the cookie cutter aura of the group dynamic. While Shota Sometani gets a high billing he is only in the opening act for a few minutes, whilst the noted adult cast fill up the oblique secondary roles as discussed above.

Not to be dismissed as a Battle Royale clone or even a rehash of Lesson Of Evil, the main selling point of As The Gods Will is Miike’s name and reputation, where you know what to expect without knowing what to expect. It’s a visually inventive and daring film which works best if you ignore the absence of a coherent central narrative.