Friday, September 11, 2020

Ijin-tachi to no natsu (1988)

... aka: 異人たちとの夏
... aka: Discarnates, The
... aka: Summer Among the Zombies
... aka: Summer of the Strange People
... aka: Summer with the Strangers

Directed by:
Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

Ôbayashi is the same man behind the astonishingly creative HOUSE (1977), which is a marvel of color, style, visual design, noise and weird, inventive low budget special effects, which are now seen as less-than-impressive yet still enjoyably gaudy and kitsch. The movie didn't make much of a splash outside of Japan when first released and it also failed to gain much of a cult following for thirty or so years. But then something happened. It received a limited U.S. theatrical release, started showing up on late night cable (I recall it being on IFC all the time at one point) and then finally received its "We need to start taking the film seriously right now" honor badge after Criterion Collection started distributing it. As a result, the film has not only become the most popular Japanese horror film made before 1990 but it has become one of the most popular and viewed Japanese horror films of all time. Many (though not all) critics also started to embrace it. It's very highly rated on most movie websites and suddenly has started to show up on "Top 100" genre lists. It's great that Ôbayashi was around long enough to enjoy a lot of this before his passing earlier this year.

However, going by the amount of attention House - and House alone - gets, one would assume he never even made anything else. Or at least never made anything else nearly as good. This film proves otherwise, though it's absolutely nothing like his much more famous, much more frenetic work. House lovers looking for more of the same, or those who have an issue with slower-moving genre films, are best to either keep their expectations in check or steer clear completely. Discarnates (which means "not having a psychical body") is measured, mature and very serious. Though the horror content is definitely here, it takes awhile to actually get to it and it's used more as a catalyst for personal change.

Arrogant middle aged TV writer Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) has just recently divorced his wife. She got to keep their land, their house and their money, plus got primary custody of their young son, while he's had to move into an apartment in a large, quiet building that's mostly comprised of offices that are only open during the daytime. That leaves him alone every night with only the noise from a nearby highway to keep him company. He's noticed a light on in one of the offices on the third floor late at night recently, though, which he finds peculiar. Ichiro (Toshiyuki Nagashima), one of Hidemi's friends and frequent collaborators, comes to him and says he can no longer work with him because of moral and ethical reasons. As the unpleasant conversation continues, he confesses to being in love with Hidemi's ex-wife and that he's planning on asking her to marry him.

Just when the evening couldn't get any more awkward, a woman shows up at his door with a bottle of champagne. Her name is Kei Fujino (Yûko Natori). She claims to be a dancer and the occupant of a room on the third floor. She's also a big fan of his work and has clearly dressed up nicely just to impress him. However, Hidemi's in a terrible mood. Seeing how she comes off as desperate and emotional, and more or less tries to force herself into his apartment, he ends up being rude and short before shutting the door in her face.

Hidemi leaves the big city of Tokyo for the less-populated district of Asakusa, where he grew up. People there eat slower, walk slower and go to bed sooner. Everything closes by 10. He has such a romanticized view of the area that he even finds a sleazy pimp asking him if he wants an eighteen-year-old date for the evening charming. Hidemi ducks into a variety show to see comedy and magic acts and hears a familiar voice in the audience. He creeps closer and realizes the man is a dead ringer for his father, Hidekichi (Tsurutarô Kataoka). This guy turns out to be more than just a look-a-like. Hidekichi takes him back to his home to have a few beers and there awaits Hidemi's mother, Fusako (Kumiko Akiyoshi). She too is exactly as he remembers her and both treat him just as they did when he was a child. Seeing how his parents were both hit and killed by a truck while out bicycling when Hidemi was just twelve years old, we're left with a few important questions. Are they ghosts? If so, what are their intentions? Is this even really happening? Is Hidemi going insane and just imagining all of this?

Returning to his apartment, Hidemi runs into the building's only other occupant. Since he's drunk, he apologizes for being so rude during their first meeting and invites her in. Only this time she rejects him. The next day she calls. The two meet up for drinks. She's very direct. A bit too direct. But seeing how he's surrounded by people who never mean what they say, he finds it kind of refreshing. When he asks why a nice young woman like herself is single, she lets him in on a little secret: she was badly burned on her chest. Despite plastic surgery the scars are still visible and she's very insecure about them; so insecure she refuses to let anyone see her naked. If the two are going to have a relationship, she insists he have sex with her from behind and never look at her. He agrees to the arrangement and the two eventually fall in love.

Hidemi goes to visit his parents again, but his sushi chef father is at work. He works a lot when he is working but quits whenever he feels like it, knowing full well that he's good at what he does and can easily get hired on somewhere else. Still, his sporadic employment is why they live in a small one bedroom apartment and can't even afford to have a shower. Hidemi's father claims to hate writers, whom he believes are "hard-hearted people," but is willing to make an exception for his son, while his lonely mother always seems to be churning homemade ice cream. Hers is the best. Perfect. Not too sweet. Hidemi is able to relive the childhood he missed out on now; playing catch with his father, playing card games with his mother and eating home cooked meals with the parents he hardly even got to know as a child.

After many encounters with both his parents and his new girlfriend, Hidemi starts changing physically. He grows pale. His eyes and cheeks start sinking. His teeth start rotting. What he envisions himself to look like isn't the same man staring back in the mirror. In fact, he really has to concentrate to even be able to see what he's becoming. Something is draining his life force and slowly killing him, but who's doing this? And why?

This adaptation of Taichi Yamada's 1987 novel of the same name (called Strangers in its English-language form) may not be perfect but it's extremely well made, extremely well-acted by the four leads, keeps laser focus on the novel's primary themes and is ultimately quite moving. Though the moral of the story is presented in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion at the end, it still resonates in an affecting manner. This is essentially about overcoming trauma and finding the strength to keep living regardless of what life throws in your path, but it also touches on other related issues. Perhaps most profoundly for this viewer, how our own unresolved personal trauma can lead us to harm others and in turn create trauma for them; forming a cycle of human misery that pretty much just spirals into infinity.

Though there are some stylish flourishes, like shots reverting to black-and-white and then shrinking into small boxes used for scene transitions, they're kept to a minimum as not to distract from the heart of the story. Musician Yukihiro Takahashi (of Sadistic Mika Band and Yellow Magic Orchestra fame) is seen briefly in the TV studio and GODZILLA director Ishirô Honda also has a cameo.

This was a film festival favorite and was nominated for numerous awards, including a whopping twelve Japanese Academy Film Prize Awards (their equivalent of the U.S. Academy Awards), winning for Best Screenplay (Shin'ichi Ichikawa) and Best Supporting Actor (Kataoka). Shochiku released this theatrically in the U.S. in 1989 and it's been available with English subtitles for quite some time now. Odd then that this has been almost completely forgotten over the years but such is the fate of many hard-to-pigeonhole films, I guess. Still, there are surprisingly few critical reviews for this title online. It's not even listed on Rotten Tomatoes and the ever-increasing popularity of Hausu hasn't even helped matters any. I vaguely recall a short capsule review in a movie book I used to own calling it "the first zombie movie from Japan." Whoever authored that clearly hadn't even seen the movie.

Just as this film is not entirely bound by the conventions of just one genre, Ôbayashi made films in many different genres. His other titles of interest to horror fans include the Vadim homage vampire short Emotion (1966), The Visitor in the Eye (1977), the Bad Seed-inspired TV movie Kawaii Akuma (1982 aka Cute Devil or Lovely Devils) and The Drifting Classroom (1988).

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