I Am A Hero
Japan (2015) Dir. Shinsuke Sato
Aside from the anime High School Of the Dead Japan’s take on the zombie flick has been esoteric at best, rarely resembling the approach we are used to seeing here in the west. In adapting the manga by Kengo Hanazawa, Shinsuke Sato makes a film that will appeal to the western sensitivities whilst retaining its unique Japanese perspective.
Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi) is a 35 year-old manga artist going nowhere as an assistant while his own work is routinely rejected. Tired of Hideo’s lack of achievement and drive his girlfriend Tekko (Nana Katase) throws him out of their apartment. The next morning Tekko calls Hideo having caught the bug that is doing the rounds, but when Hideo visits her, an unrecognisable Tekko attacks him before being killed in the scuffle.
Escaping the flat, Hideo notices people in the street looking as ghoulish as Tekko did while others flee in terror from them. Able to escape in a taxi with high-schoolgirl Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), Hideo learns of virus called ZQN which is turning people into super strength zombies. They flee to Mount Fuji where other survivors are located but this might not be the safe refuge they were hoping for.
You’re probably wondering exactly how I Am A Hero differs from all the other zombie films in existence especially when it is built around a safe and well tested storyline. Horror is a genre where this isn’t necessarily a huge problem as it is the gore and scares it births that appeals to its target audience, but any change is a refreshing one and in the case of this film, they are subtle but potent enough.
It’s mainly revolves around the main protagonist and the idea of being a hero and what that actually means. This is subverted by Hideo being a dreamer – or more accurately a fantasist – longing to be the hero in a real life scenario but just doesn’t have the resolve or testosterone to pull it off. Now put in a position where he really needs to man up and Hideo doesn’t follow the usual path of a fictional hero’s journey in becoming a superman overnight.
There is a scene in a the Mount Fuji camp where one of the survivors, ex-nurse Tsugumi Oda aka Sister (Masami Nagasawa) tells Hideo he is a hero for helping Hiromi to safety and staying with her despite not knowing her before this experience. Coming from a self-confessed “bad nurse” for leaving her patients when the outbreak struck, this reaffirms the idea that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and born from unique circumstances.
Hideo is also fairly unassuming and atypical for a hero, usually reserved for the rugged, good-looking type who embraces his newfound responsibility. At 35 and writing manga where his doppelganger is the man he isn’t in real life, his only real symbol of manhood, if you will, is a shotgun (very rare in Japan) bought for research purposes that he hasn’t got the gumption to use.
Beyond the quietly engaging journey of Hideo’s transition from milquetoast millstone to reluctant man of the hour, there is a satire on post tsunami Japan in the subtext of the survivors’ camp. Everything seems communal enough at first, but a few trigger-happy members, like Iura (Yu Yoshizawa) who has assumed control of the camp, covet Hideo’s shotgun which leads to a power struggle with said weapon as the main prize.
Japan has always been a country where community is favoured over the individual yet in this scenario we see that the instinct to survive is enough to force a divide among those with the biggest egos and more selfish bents over working together. Once again, Hideo is used to juxtapose his gentle helpful nature against the arrogance of the “tough guys” who seek glory even at the expense of others.
To offset the human drama there is the small matter of the rampaging zombies who are a mix of the classic brainless flesh eaters and the sprightlier modern take, their natural physical skills having been amplified by ZQN. Visually they differ by their faces being swollen and veiny, and their eyeballs shifting to either end of the sockets and not central.
A unique quirk they’ve been given is retaining shards of the memories of their prior lives – for instance, a salaryman zombie stands with his arm in the air as if he is holding a support strap on the morning train; a shopaholic woman tries to get into her favourite boutique; and a champion athlete practices the high jump with no beam, hitting the ground head first, sporting a huge cavity in his skull thereafter.
Working with a budget that pales in comparison to Hollywood, the effects are amazing, from the zombie transformations to the graphic gore of their heads being blown off. The climactic final war in an underground car park is a gloriously claret soaked battle royale of exploding flesh and decapitated bodies, boasting impressive ideas in its construction and choreography and captured through a febrile and punchy camerawork.
Hideo’s reticence towards embracing his “masculine” side might prove frustrating for some, yet Yo Oizumi plays this with assured precision in making for a fresh experience to see someone refuse the mantle of hero. As compelling as his character is, it would have been more enriching if Hiromi and Tsugumi received similar attention as his companions, but both actresses deliver strong turns, especially Kasumi Arimura.
One can argue the 126 runtime is excessive but the story and gruesome action are both strong and witty enough to hold the audience for this period of time. Sato has form in adapting anime and manga (Gantz and Bleach) and this is another fulfilling effort from him. I Am A Hero pays homage to the conventions of the zombie flick to satiate genre fans but confidently holds its own with its literal “anti” hero narrative.