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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003

Run for it! This is a disaster!


Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Joji Iida
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Trashing Tokyo comes naturally to Japanese filmmakers -- the Godzilla films and Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira" (1988) being but two of many examples. There are the obvious historical reasons -- the bombings of 1945, the earthquake of 1923 -- that make it easy to imagine a giant foot shaking the ground or a nuclear holocaust ending society as we know it.

News photo
Satoshi Tsumabuki and Sayaka in "Dragonhead"

Even this reviewer, who first came to Tokyo in 1975, after it had recovered from wartime destruction, has long had a feeling of impermanence about the place. It is less a city in the Western sense, with an architectural core that endures for centuries, than a perpetual construction project, where the tearing down and building up never end. If the bulldozers can sweep away entire communities in days -- as I recently witnessed in my own neighborhood -- the thought of larger forces wreaking more widespread havoc no longer seems far-fetched.

Then there's Hollywood, making all that money with CG extravaganzas. With CG effects getting cheaper by the day, Japanese filmmakers naturally want to do the same. Another stomping of the Big Mikan makes a great, salable CG subject.

Thus "Dragonhead," Joji Iida's futuristic fantasy of a Tokyo reduced to, not just the usual chaos, but ashes. Based on a comic by Minetaro Mochizuki that ran in "Young Magazine" from 1994 to 1999, "Dragonhead" is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the summer.

One reason was the producers' unusual choice of location -- Uzbekistan, though not a single Uzbek appears on camera. Another is the unusually elaborate production, with art director Tomoyuki Marao and VFX director Masaru Tateishi creating a new definition of "ultimate destruction" -- not just blasted ruins, but an entire planet turned into a gray, sooty hell.

If only "Dragonhead" were worthy of its spectacularly desolate location and chilling CG apocalypse. Instead it quickly descends to cheap histrionics, while sketching its dystopian world in broad, cartoonish strokes. What does it say about our current situation? Almost nothing that hasn't been said in the dozens of dark future epics that preceded it.

"Dragonhead" ticks off boxes on the cliche check-list with a plodding thoroughness. Want a train wreck? Got it. Environmental catastrophe? That, too. Volcanoes? Meteors? Creepy blank-eyed Franken-kids? Yep, yep and yep. Leave anything out? How about a coherent narrative that builds to a gripping climax? Instead, like its hapless schoolboy hero, who spends half the film stumbling over rail tracks and rocks, the film never finds its footing, lurching through scene after scene, while the gloom deepens.

That hero is Teru Aoki (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who is on a school excursion when the shinkansen he and his classmates are riding goes into a tunnel -- and never comes out. A collision seems to have killed everyone, save Teru. Then he happens on another survivor, Nobuo Takahashi (Takayuki Yamada), who is freaking out even faster. Soon Nobuo is baring his teeth and flashing a knife -- and Teru is fleeing for his life. Cowering under a car he finds Ako Seto (Sayaka), a girl who has been reduced to a quivering lump of fear.

Together they escape both Nobuo and an earthquake that buries the remains of the train. They find themselves in a mountainous moonscape, over which gray ash is raining down like snow. They become frantic, but being a boy and thus, by inflexible seishun eiga (youth film) logic, the more resourceful one, Teru gets a grip first and sets off for help, with Ako whimpering along behind.

They find a ragtag band of survivors reduced to savagery -- and they are predictably unwelcoming. Escaping again, they are rescued by a helicopter on its way to Tokyo. On board is Matsuo (Jinpachi Nezu), a bespectacled businessman-type who tells them there are survivors in the city.

There they link up with a former Self-Defense Force soldier (Naohito Fujiki), who has become a wily scavenger, and also reunite with Matsuo, who is living with survivors in a huge underground shelter. These human shards shuffle around aimlessly, eating special rations that are medicated to eliminate fear, hope and other now-useless emotions. A pair of twin boys have even had their brains surgically altered to make them ideal citizens of this new world -- i.e. zombies. More disasters are still to come, however, including fire, meteors and a volcano to end all volcanoes. Will Teru and Ako make it out alive? If they do, what's the point?

The film never satisfactorily answers this question, just as Teru and Ako never evolve beyond the nice-teens-in-big-trouble stage.

Tsumabuki, who was amusingly clueless as a schoolboy synchronized swimmer in "Waterboys," is annoyingly overwrought here. Meanwhile, his costar, budding pop singer Sayaka, plays childish, helpless femininity to grating perfection. She must have taken acting lessons from her mother, Seiko Matsuda, who was equally irritating as a faux naive pop star in the 1980s. Watching "Dragonhead," I could see the future -- generations of idols, simpering "yada, yada" for all eternity. We're doomed, I tell you, doomed!

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