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quietearth [Film Festival 07.13.12] Japan apocalyptic comedy


An apocalyptic comedy from director Gakuryu Ishii, adapted from the play by Shiro Maeda, Isn't Anyone Alive chronicles the final hours of the human race from the perspective of eighteen Japanese citizens coming to terms with an inexplicable deadly plague, and how they choose to spend their last ten hours alive. 'Chosen by God,' these friends, family members, lovers and pop stars wander adrift amongst the dead and dying around a large college campus - some seeking forgiveness and comfort, others a scientific explanation and cure, and in one case simply a string of half decent last words. Featuring a cast of first timers and running at a little under two hours, cult director Ishii's new film is a patchwork of apocryphal urban myths, far-out imagery, lofty philosophical ideas and oddly misplaced scatological comedy, but is far too long and not nearly centered enough to warrant recommendation. In the end the audience who stick with it will find the finale more baffling than satisfactory... and yet it's weirdness factor does make it somewhat compelling.

The film begins with a meeting of the College Urban Myth Club who discuss a news item regarding a catastrophic train crash caused by a driver falling asleep at his post. Some of the students mention other strange goings on, including power failures and a haunted elevator. Here we are introduced to Enari and Andre, two club members who flirt around one another until broken up by conflicting schedules that'll soon be irrelevant given the situation. We think they might be the film's romantic heroes... Later we meet best friends Dr. Fish and Yama who have survived another train wreck in the city and are looking for a hospital to check out their injuries - they provide some stoner philosophy and comic relief before the film switches to a local cafeteria where a love triangle is taking place between Katsufumi and his two girlfriends, one of whom is pregnant and wants to have the baby on her own. Meanwhile (still keeping up?) a doctor at the local clinic, Maki, is having to contend with the appearance of her ex-convict brother who's eager to re-enter her life and atone for past sins. A mother seeks her son and interacts separately with each of these cliques, and a reality TV pop star briefly panics over events but seems far more concerned with not soiling himself than dying... Over the course of the film everyone begins to die and this isn't a spoiler for it is the plot of the film. There's no dramatics about it, they simply start to fall over one-by-one, shudder for breath and expire.

I live for films that ponder how we'd react to a sudden end-of-the-world situation, whether gritty and nihilistic affairs like Threads, personal dramas like Last Night, or good old fashioned Zombie flicks like Dawn of the Dead and so on; they all have something to offer in this department and I'm a sucker for day-dreaming about how I'd react to events like this. These movies all examine our humanity, fear of death and ability as a species to evolve to survive, and examine the lengths we'd go to for solace at the end. I guess this is what 'Isn't Anyone Alive?' is looking to examine, but unlike even the more surreal or quirky films of the genre, this just doesn't hold water for so many reasons it's tough to know where to start.

I suppose the main problem is that nobody either in front of or behind the camera seems to be taking the material seriously, and this might work as a play where audience reaction is part of the performance, but cinematically it's a poor move to keep our character's reactions resolutely deadpan, even for the sake of comedy. While the film starts off giving us hints of impending disaster, the eventual moments of death and dramatic pathos that follow are played almost entirely for laughs, as when one victim falls to the floor and takes an agonizing five minutes to actually die, his friends stand around waiting impatiently. The various conversations early in the script are dotted with absurdist observations and surreal comic flights of fancy, but as the lives of our protagonists start to end person-by-person we're left wondering who will be next, but without any reason to care, until it's simply a matter of waiting for a resolution that refuses to come. Instead we're given the immature final moments of a bunch of badly drawn and unsympathetic stereotypes.

Individual set-pieces certainly stand out as inventive and striking, such as birds falling on mass from the skies, hospitals littered with corpses and a haunting coastal vista which looks out to a destroyed city in flames, but without the actual muscle of a decent story there's just no reason for us to appreciate the special effects and production design on display. I gather Ishii is a well known force in filmmaking (I've never come across his work before but the programme lists Tarantino among his admirers) but this could easily be a graduate film for the amount of thought that's gone into the depth of characterization, and two hours is a long time to spend with people who have the emotional responses of old trousers. It's a cool idea which put me in mind of Douglas Coupland's novel 'Girlfriend in a Coma' which has a similar 'humanity shutting down' theme behind it's message of alienation, but 'Isn't Anyone Alive?' takes the idea of a society in spiritual decline and just kicks it about like an old football instead of searching for any meaning behind its surface concept.

I've written so much about this film because I can't realistically envision anyone else on any other site giving it this much thought. Taken literally it's a film about an uninteresting group of people who die. Looking at it from a metaphorical standpoint it's... about a group of people who are so boring that they just die? I don't know. They all die anyway, and then I went home.

Original title: Ikiteru mono inai no ka

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