And They Don't Feel Fine
Ah the apocalypse! Always such delightful cinematic fare. Only occasionally the stuff of great cinema, that's true, although there's always The Turin Horse or Melancholia to counter all those ones about grizzled men stopping meteorites or the many millions of zombie films constantly oozing off the production line. Still, it's a well worn genre, and with a huge range of apocalyptic cinema out there it must be tricky enough for a director to manage a fresh approach.
With Isn't Anybody Alive? director Gakuryu Ishii has settled for an ironic, blackly comic anti-genre exercise concerning a sudden apocalyptic phenomenon. Like Canada's Last Night, the impending end of the world of IAA? is grounded in a handful of locations with a bare minimum of special effects work. But Isn't Anyone Alive? takes itself much less seriously. On a university campus, students, staff and visitors are hearing reports of a horrific train crash having occurred in the nearby Japan Rail line. Yet they're getting on with their day, and the university hospital is not near enough to the crash site to be of much use to the wounded. Things take a turn towards the Rapturous when people start randomly dropping dead around the campus from what appears to be a virus. Some die in convulsions, others after seemingly shitting out their intestines. It soon becomes evident that no-one is safe. Will someone discover what exactly is going on?
If you want to know the answer to that question, your right outta luck buddy! Director Ishii (a cult Japanese director returning to feature films after a prolonged hiatus) is not one for traditional narrative structure or resolutions. The first act is spent establishing curious backstories and relationships, only for the vast majority of the characters to be dispatched before anything really comes of their various trials and tribulations. It's a strange move, albeit a playful one: in a way, this is a satire and deconstruction of the disaster movie. Rumours abound, for example, of a secret US government facility hidden beneath the hospital. In another film, there would surely be a big deal made about this followed by shocking third act revelations. Here, the character Maki (played by Eri Aoki) investigates it, but all we see is her walking down a seemingly endless tunnel. When she returns to the film later on, she shrugs off the rumours casually, and gets on with the business of awaiting her imminent doom. People die in strange and amusing ways: that's pretty much everything that happens in this film, rendered in endearingly bright & breezy cinematography (although some split screen moments and swipe edits are misjudged) and accompanied by a discordant but effective soundtrack.
The (mostly young and hip) ensemble cast do a good job of making their (oftentimes one-dimensional) characters interesting and engaging - a solid mix of naturalistic performances and oddball caricatures. There's a few who provide straight-up comic relief: most notably the wacky duo of Jun Murakami and Shojiro Tsuda (the latter playing a character known only as Dr. Fish, who is probably not a certified doctor but does have a particular fondness for fish trivia). While the film never takes itself too seriously, DVD cover star Shota Sometani (the lead from the astonishing Himizu) is the closest thing the film has to a 'protagonist', although I use the phrase extremely loosely. The various situations the large cast find themselves in are a mixed bunch: some are very funny in their silly surrealism, others drag on for too long, while a small handful are actually surprisingly poignant. Indeed, after nearly two hours of casual irony and post-modernism, it comes as a shock that the ending is actually sort of poetic. Apart from the film's controlled strangeness, there's nothing all that original or insightful about the film, but enough of the situations engage to make it worth enduring the more repetitive patches.
Is this a great or even a good film? For many the answer will be a resounding no, the aimlessness and dismissal of tradition likely to frustrate. Yet for others there will be something bewitching about the film's unusual tone, self-awareness and bizarre happenings. It's hard to articulate exactly why, but the film's proud disregard for formula and genre is admirable, even if its sometimes struggles to convince that all of these dying individuals are worth spending time with. Isn't Anybody Alive? is short on enlightenment, but is happy to entertain and amuse those who commit to its loosely structured form.