by David Cornelius
“Dragonhead” is the latest in a long line of apocalypse stories, the kind that work overtime to bring out the best in pessimistic science fiction. Once again, we get to see the world end with the proverbial whimper, and like the very best of this genre, the effects are nothing short of devastating.“Nature’s mystery runs deeper than you could ever imagine,” one character reveals in a moment of attempted explanation. Indeed, on trial here is humanity itself, which has been mad long before any apocalypse could induce insanity. “Dragonhead,” adapted from a series of graphic novels by Minetaro Mochizuki, opens with young Teru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) awakening on a train, confused, disoriented. Then the facts reveal themselves: he was returning from a school trip to Kyoto, there was a crash, everyone else on the train is dead, the tunnel has collapsed. But wait - not everyone is dead; Teru finds Nobuo (Takayuki Yamada) alive among the ruins. Problem is, Nobuo’s jumped over into full-blown insanity.
"An unforgettable, unshakable epic experience."
To tell you more would be a major crime against the film, which depends so much on surprise, mystery, the occasional confusion, and an endless sense of unease. And yet there is so much else to the film that it is impossible to discuss it without telling more. So I’ll simply request that you stop reading here and trust me when I say that this film is a work of brilliance, one that demands to be experienced immediately, with fresh eyes. If you dare read on, prepare to stumble across a few spoilers.
OK. Still here? Fine. Where was I? Ah, yes…
The film spends a good forty minutes or so in the tunnel, with Teru desperate to figure out how to survive - and figure out just what happened. Nobuo was heard babbling something about “red lights,” but what could that mean? A third survivor is found, Ako (Sayaka). Teru convinces her to find an escape route, which they finally do, only to discover a vast wasteland, mountains covered not with snow but with ash. Again, what happened?
If the first section of the film is suffocating in its claustrophobia, this next section is overwhelming in its sense of dark mystery. At least in the tunnel, all we had to worry about was one lunatic; there was always the hope that this was merely a cave in, that a path outside would be a path to normalcy. As a result, the first shot of the outside is crushing. Once we’re over the initial “wow” factor the impressive special effects provide (as with almost every shot in the film, the reveal of the outside is entirely convincing), our hearts sink. This, we (and, of course, the characters) realize, is only going to get worse.
The rest of the film becomes a slow crawl back to Tokyo, where Teru and Ako hope to find civilization. There’s nothing to convince them of this, but there is the instinctual drive to go home. Home is safe. Home is family. Home can’t be gone, too, can it?
The game the movie enjoys playing is a teasing one, in which we’re repeatedly watching the main characters find some form of hope, followed by the shattering of such hope. Teru and Ako find a small town where a few stragglers survive - only to learn that they, too, have been driven mad, making them all too dangerous. They team up with a pair of military types, who helps them through many a rough moment - until, yes, the madness sets in for good.
The madness is inescapable, and Teru and Ako become our tour guides through the collapse of humanity. It’s a double-edged collapse, really; on one side, you get your descent into insanity, while on the other side - introduced by the arrival two children who have been lobotomized by a lunatic father, and punctuated later in the film with a chilling revelation - you get your complete emotional shutdown, the refusal of all feelings. Humans are not programmed to deal with such devastation, the film tells us, and living through such massive death will cause us to shut down, one way or another.
At least with the madness, you still get to feel. As Ako laments, “If I can’t cry or laugh, what’s the point?” What’s the point, indeed, as the film suggests that merely surviving is not enough for the human race. Push out our souls, and we are merely empty shells.
It’s pretty heady stuff, and those expecting non-stop thrills may be disappointed. “Dragonhead” is not about action but about the mind. Director Jôji Iida, after struggling with “Rasen” and “Another Heaven” (both showed more promise than they delivered), finally gives us a film that lives up to his potential. Here, Iida is methodical in his pacing and meticulous in his presentation - two phrases that could be translated as “too slow” by some viewers. But it’s a delicate slowness, one that turns the film from your standard apocalypse thriller to a sprawling epic of survival and ruin. Another director would push the action forward at an unwise speed. Iida sits back and lets the events unfold on their own terms.
The result is a far more effective story. The pacing gets us on edge, anxious about where the story is leading us. Mix in Iida’s knack for disturbing imagery (the man even makes a room full of balloons creepy) and some brilliant performances (Tsumabuki’s turn here is a brave blend of disorientation, cowardice, and determination that creates a character far more real than usually found in films, while Yamada leads the pack of fine talent getting to explode in a sea of psychosis) and there’s not a moment here in this massive feature that plays out as dull.It is, quite plainly, two hours of unyielding unease, and for Iida to carry this off is a testament to his talents, and to the talents of his collaborators. “Dragonhead” is nothing short of extraordinary, a masterwork to rival the finest apocalypse films.
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originally posted: 09/27/05 15:16:27