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Ulises [Celluloid 12.17.07] post apocalyptic movie review

Year: 2003
Director: Jôji Iida
Writer: Jôji Iida + more
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva (via VeryTragicalMirth)
Rating: 7 out of 10

“ could I remember what I took for granted?” Dragonhead’s haunting opening line, voiced over a montage of red-tinted images of present-day Tokyo, gives us an early, cryptic glimpse into the lament of its main character, a high school student named Teru. Lament, as it turns out, is the film’s emotional currency, its final solution in a devastated world bereft of solutions and emotions. The main characters’ lament allows the film to posit its central question and tagline: when the world ends, what will you do? The answer, as it turns out, is simple. Survive. Even if it hurts. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Dragonhead is a Japanese post-apocalyptic feature film about a natural catastrophe that destroys Japan and presumably the world. The opening 20 minutes of the film offer only teasing glimpses into the catastrophe, forcing us into a slow, steady buildup as the main characters try to make sense of things. Teru, our reluctant protagonist, wakes up amidst the subterranean wreckage of a bullet train. Much to his horror, he finds that his entire class is dead. He finds one fellow survivor, a classmate named Nobou, who’s gone insane. How insane? Nobou rambles on and on about how they have no choice but to “embrace the darkness.” He’s fully embraced it, too. He kills off a half-dead teacher in a fit of panic, and then proceeds to beat up on the bodies of his former bullies. Teru finds a third survivor, a terrified young girl named Ako who’s seen Nobou’s madness firsthand. Teru and Ako realize that, in order to survive, they need to escape from the underground wreckage before Nobou kills them too.

Neither Teru nor Ako realize what’s happened. Thinking they’re climbing up the narrow tunnel toward daylight and salvation, they’re horrified to find, instead, a desolate wasteland consumed in white ash. Without food, water, or answers, the two begin their trek across the land. They walk for days through the white ash until they find an abandoned town. There, they find the first band of fellow survivors, after which their plight truly begins.

Like all good J-Horror, Dragon Head is part post-apocalyptic drama, part commentary on the human condition. Fans of post-apocalyptic fare will love the second and third acts of the film, which follow Teru and Ako’s journey across an obliterated Japan as they try to return home to Tokyo. Along the way, they meet a rabble of characters, including two insane ex-soldiers and two lobotomized children, all of whom illustrate the film’s central premise: that, when faced with the end of the world, a person has two choices. They can either embrace the darkness or succumb to it. The latter is emphatically made in the film’s climax as Tokyo’s survivors choose an unlikely salvation. In the end, as Teru and Ako struggle to retain their most basic emotion—their grief—they discover the third, and only viable choice in their post-apocalyptic world: mere survival, even if it means grieving over the loss of everything and everyone.

Dragon Head is far from perfect. Keep in mind that the movie is based off a 10-volume manga (about 232 pages each) written and drawn by Minetaro Mochizuki. Meaning that Teru and Ako’s encounters seem more like a series of vignettes held loosely together by the film’s CGI panoramas of devastation. Those unused to Japanese cinematic conventions might find some of the sequences and acting a bit too campy and contrived for the subject matter. (One aside: do yourself a favor and watch the film in its original Japanese with English subtitles. The English dub version is atrocious.) Some of the special effects are good, but others our downright cheesy (one scene, where an SUV is dodging fireballs falling from the sky, seems like something straight out of a PS2 game). And, because Teru and Ako are your run-of-the-mill high school students, neither one of them is a particularly inspiring protagonist at first. Teru, especially, is whiny, weak, and barely capable of keeping his head on, and he will grate on some nerves. But as the film progresses, they’re forced into maturing and accepting their new reality. Because of it, they’re the only characters that make any sense in the story.

Overall, fans of PA will appreciate Dragon Head. It’s got the PA money shots we all love (the ending in Tokyo is certainly worth the price of admission), and its tone is bleak bordering on surreal, which leads to some very haunting moments (the balloon room scene with the two lobotomized kids, for instance). But it’s also a film that encourages multiple viewings to appreciate its many nuances, and one that encourages you to explore the questions it posits. In the end, when faced with the end of the world, what do you do? Embrace the darkness? Succumb to it? Or simply survive, even if the pain of loss survives with you?

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Bahtiyor (13 years ago) Reply

Good movie. I was working on the shooting of it in Tashkent. Was a great time together with the best actors.


n107 (12 years ago) Reply

I watched the movie last night and I have mixed feelings about it. I thought that the visuals were great, especially at the end. It really captured the PA feel. The story, on the other hand, was a bit disjointed. The problem is two-fold. First, as mentioned in the review, it's a 2 hour movie made from 2000+ pages of source material. Secondly, they try to take as many themes and plot elements from the original Manga and squeeze them all in without actually including the related scenes and events. It results in the movie being unclear in many of its aims. The atmosphere and ideology behind the original Manga becomes watered down and the director compensates by adding extra action sequences. I think that with all the changes made for the movie, the director should have just dropped the message behind the Manga and just made it strictly an action film. It would have worked better than the hybrid that we got.

I hate to sound so negative, but honestly it does not hold a candle to the true PA experience of the Manga. Watch the movie for its visuals and "what if" scenario but take the time to read the original if you want the real story.


Cannon (12 years ago) Reply

Wow this was a terrifying and heart-breaking emotional roller coaster. I loved it. But it reminds me of The Road.

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