JAPAN / KOREA 2009 Directed by: Kim Tae-Gyun Manga: Koji Matsumoto Written by: Tetsuya Oishi Cinematography: Shinji Kugimiya Editing: Hiroaki Morishita Music: Hiroyuki Sawano Cast: Hideo Ishiguro, Dai Watanabe, Miori Takimoto, Asami Mizukawa, Koji Yamamoto, Fumito Moriwaki, Osamu Adachi, Tomohisa Yuge, Takahiro Tsutsumi
Akira’s brother Atsushi has vanished from the face of the earth about two years ago, leaving the family in despair. While the father has become a drunk gambling away Akira’s tuition fees Akira himself is trying his best to stay on a path of righteousness, not yet giving up hope that one day he will find his lost brother. One day though he meets a mysterious woman who appears to know a lot about him. She claims that she’s interested in him, and they end up in a love hotel, but nothing happens. Later he sees her again while walking around downtown with his friends, involved in what looks like a strange deal with even stranger men. Akira and his schoolmates decide to follow the woman, and soon they wish they hadn’t as they witness a vampire killing his victim right in the middle of modern-day Japan. When their cover is blown the vampire goes for Akira et al, luckily mystery girl comes to their rescue killing the bloodsucker at the end of a ferocious fight.
But it’s far from over: Akira learns that the woman is from an unknown island not shown in any map. One day a vampire started to kill everyone until all inhabitants were turned into vampires themselves. Running out of blood the vampires tried to lure more humans to the island, and mystery girl was one of their agents. Claiming she went rogue, the woman convinces Akira and the others to follow her to the island to fight the vampires. Her best argument: Atsushi is still alive, living on the island battling the vampire army all on his own. Akira and his friends decide to take a risk and travel to eerie Higanjima to find Atsushi and bring him back to his family.
Boy, had I been looking forward to HIGANJIMA. The kingkongesque scenario looked very exciting on paper, literally: Koji Matsumoto’s manga is playful but also dark and cynical, with his young heroes encountering samurai vampires on the godforsaken island, fighting for survival BATTLE ROYALE style and facing tremendous sacrifice in the wake of looming death. As so often the heroes are adolescent but they encounter a tough and rough fate that makes them grow up quickly. What is also important is the subtext of friendship, sacrifice, coming-of-age, consumerism and the value of humanity.
The main problem when adopting a manga for the big screen is that what looks good in black-and-white sketches doesn’t necessarily translate easily into color, real people and real locations. Also, dialogue that looks fine in written form may just sound less interesting when spoken by (semi-talented) actors. HIGANJIMA the movie obviously faces quite a lot of various issues.
The violent beginning promises a no-holds-barred, slice-and-dice-’em actionfest, and with the group of friends setting sail towards the island we get even more excited. So far, the story works, the characters work (most of all Akira and the girl), the action works, the mystery works (even if you’ve read the manga), so I thought I’m in for a hell of a ride.
What happens however is that gradually, or rather quickly, the movie turns into a teenage vampire flick with rapidly decreasing production value. As soon as the Uber-Vampire shows up it goes downhill, because the chief vampire is the chief problem: the character isn’t charismatic, or cool, or ever feels like a real threat (just like all the other vampires), instead he’s just a kid, a clown in a cheap costume (his look reminding me somewhat of Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS). The actor fails completely to create a villain that we can hate and fall in love with at the same time. Hardly ever was a movie further away from the truth that villains should be equally or even more charismatic than the good guys. You wonder why, without any further ado, they don’t just kick his sorry ass off the island.
Furthermore does the make-up department deliver one of the most horrible jobs in vampire film history: it’s really just white make-up they apply to all vampire-actors, which makes them look like, well, actors that act like vampires. It really feels like watching a Halloween party and not a feature film. On top of that the “blood” is too bright red (the little “real” blood they are using); I remember Tom Savini having serious issues with the color of the blood he used for DAWN OF THE DEAD. Kim should have learned from his insights. Last but not least the CGI effects that are almost exclusively used in all action sequences (despite HIGANJIMA being shot in a bloody forest where you could have spilled all the red juice you wanted) are repetitive and feel increasingly harmless.
Aesthetically and in terms of visualizing the action we’ve seen better elsewhere, but what can you expect from the DOP of MEAT BALL MACHINE and Kim whose only remarkable entry to his CV is VOLCANO HIGH? This is not saying that HIGANJIMA isn’t entertaining, but it lacks sophistication as well as determination. After the presswork hailing HIGANJIMA as manga-movie-milestone the actual product over-promises and under-delivers. Generously borrowing from Tsutsumi’s SAIREN, Kitamura’s VERSUS and BATTLE ROYALE it never matches its sources of inspiration, remaining a low-budget attempt to get away with a good story as main attraction.
Obviously this is not enough to make for an outstanding movie, but if average entertainment with a few above-average moments does the trick for you, just give it a try. It won’t hurt, as HIGANJIMA doesn’t bite.