June 16, 2009

Tokyo Zombie (Review)


Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Director: Sakichi Sato

RATING:3 / 5 zedheads

Tokyo Zombie is a quirky Japanese adventure / comedy from director Sakichi Sato that is mildly amusing in its first half but then takes a disappointing turn in the middle that undercuts much of the character chemistry and fun that makes the first half so enjoyable. It almost doesn't recover.

Adapted from the comic by Yusaku Hanakuma, Tokyo Zombie stars Tadanobu Asano and Show Aikawa as two fire extinguisher plant workers. They are perfectly matched for comedy. Fujio (Asano) is tall with a wild Afro. Mitsuo (Aikawa) is short and bald. Fujio is a goof off, Mitsuo is disciplined. Both, however, are more interested in practicing jujitsu than doing their jobs.

In the bizarre version of Tokyo where they live, a giant pile of trash and industrial waste known as Black Fuji rises above the city. People come here to dump their waste, and it seems publicly acceptable to dispose of the dead and not-so-dead bodies there. However, the combination of industrial waste and bodies produces a terrible result: ZOMBIES!

When the zombies descend on Tokyo, Fujio and Mitsuo go on the run in their van and attempt to survive.

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo Zombie is the zombies. They are a low-budget variety of zombie -- all grey-blue face paint and very little signs of extreme decomposition. However, they look and move beautifully. They are fully painted (none of this "face only" bullshit you see in low budget films where the zombies have painted faces but no paint on their hands or other skin areas). The zombies are also layered and dirty looking. Even more impressive, the zombies in this movie have some of the best zombie acting I've seen in a long time. These are Romero-style zombies that move in a very similar fashion to the zombies in the original Dawn of the Dead. Each zombie has a distinct way of moving, but all are stiff-legged, top heavy, and swing around stiff twisted arms. The extras were coached to pull of some really noteworthy zombie body acting here that transcends their simple appearance. Look for a cameo from the film's assistant director as a zombie at the end of the film who is scolded for attempting to bite someone. The look on the zombie's face is brilliant.

Second, I really like the chemistry between Fugio and Mitsuo. Humour rarely translates well across cultures, but there are a number of laugh-out-loud and hearty chuckle moments in the first half of Tokyo Zombie. Much of the humour comes from the interplay between the two main characters. Like the best comedy duos, each of the characters needs the other to be a full person. There are also some surprisingly touching moments between them. Even though the humour is probably too understated and quirky in some places for most Western audiences but at the same time too sexually suggestive in other places, I was really grooving on the movie's tone.

About halfway through the film, however, an animated sequence moves the story "Five Years Later" to a post-apocalypse Tokyo. From this point, the movie lost me. These scenes change the dynamic and tone of the first half by introducing actress Erika Okuda. Her character Yoko is completely aggravating and obnoxious, and she replaces one of our more likeable main protagonists for much of the movie. I never really felt the last half of the movie has any heart until the resolution. There's a long patch before the climax of the film where I almost literally fell asleep.

Without explaining what happens and spoiling the plot, I can't say more except that I can't really recommend Tokyo Zombie as something to add to your permanent collection. That being said, it is definitely worth a rental to check out the great Japanese zombies and to soak in the charming absurdity of the story.

It's just nice to get a movie from Japan that's not a Grudge/Ring rip off, you know?

(WARNING: Trailer spoils many of the most surprising parts of the film. Watch at own risk!)