It seems like another ordinary day at a local University. Students work on their thesis papers, make plans for parties and there are even those who are making plans for a wedding and parenthood. When a small group of students begin gossiping about an urban legend that surrounds the University's hospital, people start randomly dying. Is it the curse? Can it be stopped? Or is it something else entirely that's killing everyone?
When Third Window Films sent us some screeners for there titles, Ronny was nice enough to let me review "Isn't Anyone Alive?" due to my fanboy-ism for Gakuryu (Sogo) Ishii. I'm no where near as dedicated as a fan to Ishii the way Ronny is to Tsukamoto, but I love Ishii's work all the same. I always thought his films had an interesting style and attitude to them, even his less popular ones like "Electric Dragon 80,000V" and "Dead End Run". I was excited to have a chance to watch his newest one and it was a movie that I was certain would make my 'Best of 2012' list. I guess that only leaves the question: Did it?
After stewing on the movie for several days I'm actually still not sure with absolute certainty how I felt or how I feel about "Isn't Anyone Alive?" now. Any general opinion I form is soon followed by, "yeah but." For now, I'm going to steal Lars von Trier's description of his film, "Melancholia", and say "Isn't Anyone Alive?" is about the end of the world. Nothing else. "Isn't Anyone Alive?" is about an average day for almost two dozen characters on a college campus -- a very typical day in the life of these people. And slowly, they start dying one by one for no explainable reason.
That's truly all the movie is about. There are some small personal storylines for some of the characters that we get to know through out the course of the movie but, in general, there is no greater story to follow. It's about the world coming to an end over the span of a day with no reason or explanation as to why. Instead it's more about this group of various characters and how they deal with it until they die as well. And that's not a spoiler considering that the movie is called "Isn't Anyone Alive?" so it should be obvious to anyone how it turns out.
Because of the movie's focus on the characters and being about nothing more than the world ending, I consider "Isn't Anyone Alive?" to be the comedic sister to "Melancholia". While Trier's film was a deep, dramatic exploration of the dysfunctional family when the world ends. Ishii's film is a light comedic take on the apocalypse without any real focal point -- as I said, there are some small storylines for people to follow but overall there are too many characters explored to allow any connection between them and the audience. But, then again, that was part of the design to the movie as it is suppose to be funny. Any sort of attachment to a character that was inevitably going to die wouldn't allow those awkward deaths to be humorous, which some were. Instead it would have ended up playing out as more of a downer instead of making room for the viewer to laugh.
Unfortunately it's the lack of depth in the characters and story, the lack of explanation and structure and the seemingly uninspired direction has resulted in the movie almost being panned across the board. I haven't come across any positive reviews (English reviews, at least) and I can understand most of the disappointment from these critics. Gakuryu Ishii has gone from being a once inspirational, eccentric director who helped in starting the punk-cinema movement in Japan. To a generic commercial title director who, some say, has lost his touch. With "Isn't Anyone Alive?" I can see that; there aren't any identifying characteristics of Ishii's in the movie and it doesn't have much to offer the viewer. Unless said viewer enjoys over analyzing and reading into things that aren't actually there.
I even found myself disappointed with the movie after it was over thinking it was too dull but I decided to wait a bit to write a review and mull over the experience. The longer I thought about "Isn't Anyone Alive?" the more I began to realize I had been entertained by it, more so than I initially thought. Mostly because it wasn't afraid to be a bit silly; while the setup and scenario is a bit more realistic for an end-of-the-world flick, character's death scenes were usually over-the-top. There are no graceful deaths in the movie. To give two examples: one character continuously comes back from death only to die again, or the pop-star who wanders around trying to get help because "something is coming out of his rear end." There wasn't much else to the movie; maybe some light social commentary or a bit of irony since most of the characters are college students talking about their plans for the future. But it seems like the movie's point was to take a look at the end of the world from a comical perspective instead of the usual dramatic or action style.
By that standard, it's obviously going to be a dull movie for most people and it was a bit for me too. Which might be because the movie is based on a stage play by the same name, and let's face it, live theater and movies are two completely different mediums. Where one may work in a certain area, the other may not (Oh hi, Spider-man!). On the stage, a large collection of actors having meaningless conversations and then keeling over might be absolutely knee-slapping hysterical. With film it came off as a bit more monotonous and wasn't as interesting as the subject matter could have been. However, I was still entertained by its absurd concept and the fact that it was an easy watch. "Isn't Anyone Alive?" is clearly meant to be light entertainment and if it had been saturated with subtext and deep dramatic character stories, it would have been just another pretentious art film that probably would have had people saying, "Trier did it better."
Which he did, but as the polar opposite of "Melancholia", I found there was some enjoyment in "Isn't Anyone Alive?". It is very unlikely that the movie will make my 'Best of 2012' list and certainly this isn't the best thing Ishii has done either, but I didn't find the movie to be completely devoid of entertainment or value. It is quirky enough and has enough of an off beat comedic charm to it, that it was entertaining for what it has to offer. The runtime could have used some trimming as there wasn't any need for the movie to be 2 hours long, and the characters could have been more interesting too but, on the other hand, the bland and general every day nature of the characters and setting gave it something more. It could have easily been another over the top Japanese movie but instead it's more of a quiet, humorous little movie.