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Friday, March 14, 2008
'Yurei vs. Uchujin'
Close encounters of the weirdest kind
Even film directors need a break from the routine, don't they? Especially Takashi Shimizu, who has spent much of this decade making seven installments of his hit "Grudge (Ju-on)" J-Horror franchise, including two films for Hollywood, about vengeful ghosts who move from victim to victim like viruses.
Apparently feeling the sillies after giving millions the willies, Shimizu teamed up with fellow director Keisuke Toyoshima ("Kaidan Shinmimibukuro") to make a pair of short films on the theme of ghosts vs. space aliens. Screened at Cinema Shimokitazawa in 2003, the films packed the theater and generated a series that was collected on two DVDs in 2007.
Now a feature-length two-part omnibus, "Yurei vs. Uchujin (Ghosts vs. Aliens)," is about to hit the theaters. Seeing the trailer on the Web, I thought it might be the sort of private joke that sounds hilarious over sake at three in the morning, but falls flat on the screen. It's better than that, fortunately. Shimizu and Toyoshima have an insider's love and knowledge of the genre. They also use the parody format to not just goof on formulas and cliches but tell a deeper truth or two.
Still, compared with similar fare by cult king Takashi Miike, including the zombie musical "Katakurike no Kofuku (Happiness of the Katakuris)" in 2001, Shimizu and Toyoshima's efforts are on the tame side. There are no Miike-esque shocks that make you choke in mid-chuckle. There is, however, droll commentary from Haruka Minowa and Haruna Kondo of the Harisenbon comedy duo, who play nerdy fans watching "Yurei vs. Uchujin" in the theater.
Toyoshima gets the proceedings underway with "Rock Hunter Iemon," a take off on the classic "Yotsuya Kaidan" ghost story. Ryuji (Takashi Yamanaka), a former gangster who has married the daughter of a rich businessman and joined his company, hangs out with a buddy from the old gang and otherwise avoids the office and his pregnant wife, Iwako (Tomomi Miyashita). Then Iwako's dad, enraged by his son-in-law's irresponsibility, hunts him down, but doesn't survive the encounter. Ryuji, despondent at the turn his life has taken, puts a bullet through his own brain, but inexplicably survives. He returns to his old gang, where he receives an offer he can't refuse — that involves poisoning his wife.
Where are the ghosts and space aliens? Ryuji, in case you haven't deduced it from the above summary, is now a zombie. And Iwako? Let's just say her amazing regenerative powers don't come from a bottle of Oronamin C. And other characters aren't what they seem either. The various transformations into the ghostly and alien come rather late in the story, however. Also, the explanations for the odd goings-on make sense only if your brain has been aerated like poor Ryuji's. Even so, there is a rough justice to the sorting out at the end, as when a soulless corporate suit grows a pair of grotesque alien ears.
Shimizu's segment, "Rakudatsu Ai (Fatal Love)," has a glossier visual sheen than Toyoshima's, as well as a sexier story. Utsuo (Kazuya Takahashi), a washed-up pop-song composer, begins it fending off Mariko (Yukiko Nakatsubo), his desperate-to-marry fiancee, while staying in an alcoholic haze. One day he encounters Meg (Ayano Yamamoto), a sultry minx in a miniskirt — and it's love at first sight. Meg, though, is an alien whose kisses suck the life-force out of humans. Still, even after seeing the male wreckage she leaves in her lip-puckering wake, Utsuo can't help wanting her. Meanwhile, Mariko, a descendant of female shamans and an inheritor of their powers, is plotting her revenge against Meg with supernatural aid.
There is bizarre fun aplenty in this segment, including a forest battle between Meg and a gang of her dead male admirers that resembles a butoh dance number and ends with the zombies collapsing like sock puppets left without an animating hand. Ayano Yamamoto is beguiling as Meg, whose eyes promise pleasures out of this world as they glow green. Meanwhile, Kazuya Takahashi makes us understand Utsuo's obsession, picking up a guitar and crooning a plaintive ballad that perfectly sums up the highs and lows of human-alien love. Just as the chorus of the song says, the universal language is "chu, chu, chu." Or kiss, kiss, kiss — and the consequences be damned.