Rising Suns #03: I AM A HERO (2016) [アイアムアヒーロー]

One-sheet of the I AM A HERO movie based on Hanazawa Kengo’s 2009 manga.

What was the best zombie series of the last 15 years? No, it wasn’t the fucking Wanking Dead. Anyone who knows anything about comics knows it’s hot (cake) garbage but the power of marketing, merch and a duff TV show led to unfortunate things. Like a virus, it spread and infected people into thinking it was more sophisticated than it actually is-was. It’s an unplotted pile of shit that’s thankfully ended and been buried, despite continuing to spray AMC and smartphones with piping-hot liquid excrement. If it had been a carefully crafted series with an endgoal in sight, I would look at it more kindly in hindsight. When it was a mere comic series, the first 20-30 issues were seen as a revelation for being brave enough to print in black and white, the brash pronouncement it would never end, and the twists that now seem tired like a stunned horse. As a persistent stench upon popular culture, it opened the doors to the comic dross that is now inescapable on streaming services that I don’t have the interest in wasting my time on when there are real books waiting to be read. The past is a treasure trove if you’re willing to dig deep enough to find the strands, not the Xeroxed copies of brief successes and excesses.

I AM A HERO is the antithesis to the shite yank Zombie fad of the 00s-?? and was wonderfully tied up in 22 volumes by Shogakukan and my much missed friends and colleagues at Dark Horse Comics, who finished the English translation and publication in 2019.

Just before a real pandemic forced its way into the world.

When the series reached its conclusion in Japan, I drove through long, dark, winding roads at 4am to buy a copy of BIG SPIRITS to devour the final chapter and its huge colour double-page spread of its poignant conclusion. It was, and still is a monumental piece of storytelling and cemented in my mind that mangaka Hanazawa Kengo had finally realised his ambition to tell a GREAT horror story for adults which was concise, violent, obscene, outrageous and tender all at the same time. TWD could never achieve that due to its inexcusable overwriting, 200 word monologues, the same narrative voice for all the characters (that being the grossly obese Robert Kirkman who I saw sweating and panting heavily at NYCC 2012)… need I go on? No. Let’s not.

In fact, I feel it’s insulting to Mr. Hanazawa’s talent to even compare his work with anothers as it stands tall as a work of art, rather than a media monolith that leaves most people cold.

I AM A HERO span out into four volumes of additional stories by new and major Japanese talents like Ito Junji, and a live-action movie in 2016, supported by a brief late-night mini series on TV that acts as a prelude to the movie (but to be honest, all good stories start small and we don’t need to know the origins of literally fucking everything; this is my major criticism of the dire Disney+ Star Wars spin-offs).

Now, let’s bite into the juicy meat of the brain. The movie. I’m a huge fan of Oku Hiroya’s GANTZ series which came out around 2008/9 in English translation, but the live action movies were failures in terms of narrative but not casting and design. The movies share the same director as IAAH, I only recently found out. Many manga gets optioned and turned into movies before the series is completed so the creators are leaving their work in the hands of studio writers with no idea how to turn in a satisfactory conclusion. The second GANTZ film was based on aspects of the manga but sadly unsatisfying (I do however highly recommend the GANTZ: O movie, which is the closest you will get to a truly satisfying fusion of manga and movie).

The same rationale can be directed at the I AM A HERO movie, however there are so many things RIGHT about it, I can forgive truncating 22 books totalling thousands of pages into two-hours. The cast is spot on, the costumes exact, the scenes in the first 30 minutes are ripped from the pages of the manga itself as if they were storyboards. Suzuki Hideo is a 35 year old manga artist who had won a newcomer award in his twenties but never managed to capitalise on this initial spurt of success. He becomes an assistant to another mangaka who is churning out a series he’s not interested in, nor does he raise his voice to question why he’s even doing what he’s doing (this doesn’t do you any favours in making real comics or books by the way, because you always get shot down by people with no interest in the medium who think they know better than you). The work relationship breaks down when a spate of attacks across Tokyo turn out to be (possibly?) a zombie/virus/mutation that causes people to attack and infect each other. Yes, sounds familiar. So what makes it fresh? The POV of the protagonist, without doubt. Instead of going gungho with his shotgun (gun use is not legal in Japan, except for hunting or sport in which case you thankfully need a license, unlike some countries where you can shoot up schools), he is constantly at odds with himself about using the weapon, the ramnifications of violence and his own destroyed confidence.

Later, he meets high-school student Hiromi, who has been infected partially and exists in a semi-infected state that comes into play at various points in the manga series. While the movie doesn’t quite expand on her role like the manga, she still provides a welcome counter-point to the on-screen excessive gore. The movie covers the bulk of the earlier volumes, but doesn’t make it to the final volume as it had yet to be published. However, what you do get is a concise, action-packed and faithful live-action event that deserves more than a single viewing.

Three-Minute Review #11: Ichi The Killer (2001)

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I had my mind completely blown by mangaka Yamamoto Hideo’s (山本英夫) incredible Homunculus this week, a manga so powerful and compelling I read all 15 volumes in 24 hours.  Until I read up on the creator on Wikipedia, I had no idea that he had also written and drawn Ichi The Killer some years prior. I’d seen the movie back in 2001 and considered myself something of a scholar of Takashi Miike’s work [as an aside, please stop calling him ‘Mike’, as in ‘Mike the plumber’ or ‘Mike Jackson, the dead pop perv’; it’s pronounced ‘Me-eek-kay’]. I was unaware that it was based on an extremely violent yakuza manga. As soon as I’d completed Homunculus, I started in on Ichi. The two stories are poles apart visually and story-wise.

Returning now to the movie, thirteen years later, is a very different experience from when I first watched it in horrified silence in the company of friends. It’s become a byword for extremity on-screen, something cooked up by a disturbed mind from the Far East where the torture scenes conjure up harrowing memories of Unit 731, Abe Sada or centuries of unchecked violence under feudal rule. Watching it now, it’s a superbly black comedy that rarely strays from the original source material. It’s an almost-perfect comic book adaptation.

If you aren’t squeamish, the violence is utterly absurd, the characters over-the-top and universally despicable, and the amorality of the film couldn’t be more ironic if it tried. Violence begets violence, it’s as simple as that. The only scene that stuck out in my mind from the original viewing was a scene in which a yakuza is suspended with hooks Hellraiser-style while a slit-mouthed man pours hot oil onto his back. Kakihara dresses like the Joker in the movie version: wide-mouthed and dyed hair on top of a purple trenchcoat. Ichi himself is a proto-Batman in his all-black superhero bodysuit with a bright 1 on his back. It’s a perverse refraction of the DC character down to the abusive and violent childhood which created the ‘hero’, a questionable characteristic considering he spends his evenings indecently assaulting people.

The comedy is amplified in Takashi’s version: yakuza bumble about in a slapstick fashion when the boss faints after seeing Kakihara slice his own tongue off. He even takes a call, not reacting to the pain, while spitting fresh blood onto the boss’ table. Ridiculous rather than horrifying. The main difference is that the focus of the movie is on the villain of the piece rather than Ichi himself. In the first 50 minutes of run-time, Ichi appears only in three very short (but memorable) scenes, and is detached from the yakuza narrative completely.

Of course the sexual violence in the movie is deplorable, as it is in the manga, and these scenes are actually less graphic than the source material which makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. Yamamoto forces you to confront darkness you may not have seen before in comics on such a scale. It’s handled in a very gratuitous fashion that Western publishers wouldn’t dare print it lest they come under heavy fire from all spectrums of the media, but worst of all is essential to the story. The moral dilemma left me drained (contrasted with the vile use of a rape in Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2, which cemented my resolution never to read any of his work again).

What was confusing about viewing the movie in isolation was a lack of understanding about Japanese culture and customs, not knowing it was an adaptation, and regarding it as a sequence of extremely violent moments only loosely linked by the odd word here and there that barely composed a script. In actuality, the story makes much more sense after spending 10 hours reading the original, which may defeat the object but enriches the experience ten fold.

Synopsis (with spoilers): Ichi is a pawn of Jiji (Old Man), sent to do hits as and when he’s requested to do so. Old Man’s team consists of a junkie and a Chinese pimp, both of whom are equally dispensable. In a block of flats in Shinjuku, a dangerous part of Tokyo where prostitution, drugs and violence appear to be a part of daily life there (from experience of visiting the place, it’s not), a yakuza boss called Anjo and his mistress are killed by Ichi and their bodies cleaned up by the rest of the group. Kakihara, one of Anjo’s disciples and possible lover, refuses to believe his boss has done a runner with all the gang’s cash with his mistress. He sets out to find him, only to be misdirected by Old Man who claims other gangs within the same apartment block were behind his disappearance. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Kakihara attempts to find what happened to his boss. He reveals his masochistic side on numerous occasions, such as his penitent removal of the sweet part of his tongue in front of his superiors. Eventually Kakihara faces Ichi for a typically bloody Takashi showdown.

Return to this film. Watch it with filtered sunglasses on. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense. It is not an endorsement of violence or abuse, anything but. Takashi is taking the piss out of gangs and out of his audience because he knows at the end of the day you can’t take a joke.

Why so serious?

Three Minute Review #9: The Stuff (1985)

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The Stuff has only existed in my memory as a hazy Betamax trailer seen at a bad kid’s house in the mid-80s, the sort of place you were discouraged from visiting should you pick up bad language or nits. I know next to nothing about its director Larry Cohen, and no one has ever mentioned this movie in hushed tones about its “lost classic” status. It’s probably not been available on DVD for the past ten years.

Time to face my fears then. Things kick off with no fanfare whatsoever. An bearded old geezer sees the ground bubbling up beneath him, decides to taste the white muck (as if you actually would do this) and discovers it’s the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted in his entire life. What are the odds! It being America, this natural product needs to be marketed and sold as quickly as possible to the greedy sods in the supermarket. Soon, the country is hooked and others in the dessert biz aren’t too happy about their plummeting sales. They hire Mo Rutherford to investigate the secret behind The Stuff’s success, and things take a decidedly X-Files-like turn as Mo drives around backyard USA meeting brick wall after brick wall trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious product.

One hour into the movie, you’re no wiser to the reason why The Stuff is so popular, where it came from, and why everyone has gone all Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Michael Moriarty gives an oddball performance as the investigator, and his abrupt romance with the PR woman had me scratching my head confused how he managed it. There are moments where sharks are jumped using the Titanic and yet it has the pace of an A-Team episode when they’re hammering all the junk together in a garage to go do in the baddies. Some of the shaving foam special effects look a bit dodgy but that’s to be expected of a mid-80s low-budget flick like this. It’s almost kid-friendly daytime TV stuff except for a few weird gross-out moments. Not the stuff of nightmares, but altogether not bad either. Except for the hairdos.

6/10

Three Minute Review #8: The Funhouse (1981)

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Another Tobe Hooper, this time from the early Eighties, and a mixed bag of testes: perhaps the start of his slide. The film starts with soon-to-be-last girl Amy (played by Amadeus actress Elizabeth Berridge) showering whilst a masked intruder (her younger brother) tries to stab her to death with a plastic knife. The homage to Psycho and pastiche of Carpenter’s Halloween is rather lazy and dated, and then there’s the creepy factor that a 10 year old is trying to peek at his sister’s soapy breasts.

Amy chastises the lad and then nicks off to the local fun fair with her jock date and stoner pals for a night shagging in the funhouse, owned by a redneck and his deformed son who works as the ride’s assistant in a Frankenstein’s monster mask. The group overhear him receiving hand pleasure from the aged fortune-teller and his quick bolt-throwing sends him into a murderous rage. He chokes the poor woman and then tells his father, who helps him cover up the murder because “family needs to stick together”, something Hooper hammered home in his earlier Chain Saw Massacre in 1974.

It’s a predictable affair and there’s not much to enjoy except the abrupt ending. If the characters were as unhinged as those in Eaten Alive or TCSM perhaps it could have been elevated beyond bargain bin fodder.

3/10

Django Unchained (and Tarantino In Rage)

I’ve been speaking to a few people today about Tarantino’s oeuvre now that Django Unchained is hitting cinemas any time now. One friend of mine considers most of his films crap, and that’s produced nothing of merit since Pulp Fiction. Personally, I like some more than others. I find Reservoir Dogs tiresome, mainly because of the endless monologue about Like A Virgin and the over-parodied “slow walk” during the first 10 minutes. Jackie Brown didn’t do much for me either. But I do think True Romance (which he scripted) brilliant, and in the hands of the now-dead Tony Scott, the cast really bled for that film.

Kill Bill 2 was a waste of time as well.

Despite those, I liked Death Proof, which I consider underrated. Kurt Russell is great in that film, a really nasty piece of work. The structure is rather odd, and is so in both versions (The original ‘Grindhouse’ version misses about half an hour of story, including an interesting lapdance).

Kill Bill 1 I loved, and not because of the Japanese influences.

Pulp Fiction’s praise is justified.

Inglorious Basterds was superb. Who doesn’t love Christoph Platz?

The Channel 4 news interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy that aired tonight saw the man coming out swinging when questioned about his attitude towards violence in cinema, something which he claimed he’d gone on record about too many times already. Get Googling. And as usual, it takes the media to point out things like Newtown that eclipsed the news at the end of 2012, as something they believe violent movies (not to mention video games) as influencing.

It’s absolute crap, isn’t it?

During the first 10 years of my life, I’d played a lot of computer games, but the only violence I’d ever seen was not on television but in the school yard. Children can be nasty pieces of work, and coupled with an abusive homelife, to turn around and blame Double Dragon or Street Fighter II seems a bit rich.

I’ve played over 100 hours of Borderlands 2 recently, and I’ve never even considered shooting anyone. What disturbs me is the oversimplification of mental illness that permeates the media every day, written by someone who has no knowledge or interest in the facts beyond the headlines.

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I was most surprised that the fact that Django Unchained probably features the most uses of the word n*gger by a white director to be a more of an interesting debate than QT’s use of violence. The gunfights are so stylised and OTT, that it’s impossible not to enjoy them. It’s comic book+, not Hostel or A Clockwork Orange. It’s a classic revenge movie, not sadistic like Grotesque or The Human Centipede. Once again, the quick grab headline is going to be about QT raging on British TV, telling the interviewer he’s getting his “butt shut down” for asking stupid questions, which is sad because they had the opportunity to ask one of best living director’s about his art and blew it.

Django Unchained is the best film I’ve seen this year. It may even be the best film I saw in the past 12 months. The cast are excellent (with the exception of QT himself, who just HAD to write himself a cameo yet can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag) – with nods to Jamie Foxx and Christoph Platz who are surprisingly muted compared to the foul-mouthed racists Don Johnson and Leo DiCaprio.

The violence is over the top and bloody. It’s probably the most blood-soaked QT flick yet, but it’s also the most tightly plotted and satisfying.

I’m not a generous man, but it was a 9/10 for me. Can’t wait for what he’s got in store next time.

Rising Suns #01: A Brief Guide to GANTZ

This article originally appeared on totalscifi.com before the UK release of the first Gantz movie.

You’re at the train station and a drunk man falls onto the tracks. People shuffle nervously towards the yellow line to peer at the lifeless body. Everyone remains motionless, hoping somebody courageous enough will race forwards to help the guy to safety, but no one comes – until, eventually, one brave soul jumps down from the platform. He struggles to lift the lifeless, overweight body onto the platform’s edge. To your horror, he recognises you as a childhood friend. Something clicks within you and you’re standing next to him on the tracks. The light bearing down on you from the darkness of the tunnel makes you wish you’d remained passive like everyone else…

So begins the very first episode of Hiroya Oku’s manga sensation Gantz, the hyperviolent science fiction epic that’s currently being serialised in Weekly Young Jump magazine. Since its first appearance in October 2000, it has spawned a 26-episode anime series, two live-action movies, two novels, a PS2 game and a horde of merchandise that’s had a surprising cross-cultural and cross-gender appeal. The first 27 volumes of the manga has surpassed 10 million sales in its home territory, and Dark Horse Comics, who publish the English edition, have also had tremendous success (they’re currently up to volume 15).

 

The concept is simple: at the moment of death, unfortunate souls are transported to a locked room where a black sphere known as “Gantz” prepares them for battle against unusual and deranged non-human combatants. In some respects, it’s like a real life videogame where black-costumed contestants start off learning to use time-delayed explosive pistols and netting guns against spring onion-headed children, giant Buddhist statues and stripy-shirted robots that house angry birds. Rest assured, the situations are both familiar and completely alien. They’re also utterly demented.

Therein lies the appeal of the series: this is not your typical shoot ‘em up. In fact, the relationship that develops between the initially cowardly Kei Kurono, Masuro Kato and Kei Kishimoto is what keeps Gantz relatively grounded and compulsively readable. Its use of violence and sex is no more shocking than, say, Fist of the North Star or Beserk, but the real life setting makes it easier for us here in the West to jump into.

Viz Pictures acquired the rights to screen the first of two Gantz live-action feature films in the US in January, with the second, Gantz: Perfect Answer, due for release in Japan in April. With a $22m budget, it’s a no-holds-barred and thrilling experience, and the awesome, surreal set-pieces ensure it has plenty of appeal for Gantz newbies.

Two of Japan’s hottest young actors are up front and centre as Kato and Kei: Kenichi Matsuyuma and Kazunari Ninomiya. Natsuna Watanabe, a Japanese ‘idol’ (a word often used to describe attractive celebs in the country), plays eye-candy Kei. Director Shinsuki Sato has pulled back on the sexual content in the manga to make it more accessible to a teen audience, but the OTT violence still remains; one particularly explosive scene in a garage, where a group of contestants face their first true test, leaves the walls dripping with blood and limbs.

The climax at the temple (which also features in both the manga and the anime) boasts some truly stunning special effects that lift the movie from being your standard niche-market adaptation into an all-out action spectacular with wide appeal. In brief: for a condensed version of the Gantz experience, it hits the mark exactly.

Gantz the series is still running in Japan in its ‘final phase’, meaning the creator’s vision will soon be fully realised. If you’ve not had an opportunity to check out one of Japan’s hottest sci-fi exports, there’s plenty of time to get in on the act. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself with a new addiction…