X Game (X gêmu)

Japan (2010) Dir. Yohei Fukuda

There are aspects of Japanese culture that will remain elusive to the understanding of many of us here in the west, one being their propensity for humiliation and punishment games. For a country that seemed to have learned their lesson after Hiroshima, this is a side to them which makes us wonder if they ever did.

Shortly after a high school reunion at which Hideaki (Hirofumi Araki) reconnects with classmates Takeshi (Shota Chiyo), Tetsuya (Meguru Kato) and Chie (Haruka Nakagawa), they meet again at the funeral of their former teacher who committed suicide. Hideaki then receives a DVD of the teacher being brutally tortured in which he thought he saw another girl from high school, Mariko, once the victim of bullying.

Hideaki is abducted when rescuing classmate Rikako (Ayaka Kikuchi) from being followed by the woman in the video. When he awakens, he finds himself in the old classroom with Chie, Takeshi and Tetsuya. Via a videotape, the teacher informs them they must partake in the X Game – a roulette chooses a player at random, who then picks a punishment from a box which the others have three minutes to execute or face torture.

Owing a huge debt to the SAW franchise, Yusuke Yamada’s novel X Game is brought to life by Yohei Fukuda, who has form with low budget gruesome films, as director and cinematographer. His most notorious work in the latter role is the UK banned Grotesque, a fact used as promotional bait to get fans interested in this film, whereas directorial efforts, such as Chanbara Beauty and Tokyo Gore School, are less contentious.

Bullying, suicide, and vengeful games are favoured subjects for Fukuda to explore if his CV is any indication, not that he is alone as Asian cinema has a habit, like Hollywood, of recycling certain themes ad infinitum. X Game sits somewhere between social entreaty and torture porn with an element of J-horror infused mystery, with some clever twists near the end to show how this would have been improved with some refinements.

An early clue as to where the story is heading comes in the form of a lecture college boy Hideaki is sleeping through on the subject of vigilante groups seeking justice for bullying victims. The professor, with his pronounced limp which draws laughs from his students when he stumbles (a subtle allegory) talks of this being an urban myth perpetuated by the internet, yet reveals a secret group formed in 13th century West Germany called Saint Heimetan did just that.

We are 40 minutes into the film before the bullying quartet finds themselves at the mercy of the two masked thugs and the videotaped presence of the late teacher to instruct them of their fate. This might seem a long time to set this up, which is hard to argue, switching between flashbacks of the abuse Mariko suffered, and the present day mystery of the apparent spectre Mariko.

In both cases, the characters of the fated four are made clear, their lack of originality a bane we must tolerate – Hideaki the nice guy; Takeshi, the unrepentant instigator whose father was high up on the school council; Tetsuya, the tall, vicious thug, and Chie, the virtuous class president. Her arc is the most fascinating, since we can see how Tetsuya and Takeshi will play this game, whilst Chie and Hideaki are closer in being rueful.

Viewers with strong stomachs shouldn’t be too fazed by the unpleasantness that ensues, referring back to the SAW comparisons in terms of congruity to the games. There are 13 punishments, each one perpetrated against Mariko, though the last one – Death Penalty – was less literal. Nasty exercises like Thumbtack Chair and Clothes Pin Arms are given extreme twists – thumbtacks are replaced with 4-inch nails, and clothes pegs with metal claws!

Much of the visceral unpleasantness comes not just from the graphic close ups of the ripping flesh, bolstered by the impressive prosthetic make-up, but the disturbing sense of voyeurism of watching the players be tortured via a grimy black and white monitor. This recalls the snuff movie sensation of the DVD Hideaki watched and puts the audience in the same uncomfortable situation and feelings of nausea.

Despite three writers adapting the novel, there is little subtlety in the film’s message about the long lasting effects of bullying, but most people will remember the gory bits with good reason. Also likely to be distracting is Mariko’s Sadako clone appearance, a cliché already over a decade old in 2010. Even at a young age, she has long lank hair covering her face, shoulders hunched, and never speaking, making her a misfit before the bullying starts not because of it.

Fukuda uses this ghoulish aesthetic as an effective motif in delineating the psychological effects of what Mariko’s tormentors endure, leaving a question mark over whose reality has been damaged the most. Mariko is essentially the conceit of the story, more so than the revenge extracted against her tormentors, whilst unexpected revelations offer a different direction for the final act from what we might have assumed, but suffers from running long where succinctness would have been more effective.

Clearly aimed at the teen market rather than hardcore horror fans, the cast is comprised of androgynous heartthrob Hirofumi Araki, a solid lead player prone to overacting a bit too much, and two ex-idols from AKB48, Haruka Nakagawa as the duplicitous Chie and Ayaka Kikuchi as Rikako, who puts in an impressively protean debut here, but doesn’t seem to have followed it up with much since.

X-Game is a film which settles for being derivative to sell itself then proves to have more to offer which is it greatest strength yet its biggest undoing. Had Fukuda and his co-writers been more confident with the non-torture facets of the story and nurtured the character journeys and motivations, a superior film could have been made. As it stands, it does enough to provide base, gore-filled entertainment.

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