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Isn’t Anyone Alive? – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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Set in an university campus attached to hospital, the story revolves around a strange cast of characters as they face the end of the world. These characters include a girl who escapes from the hospital, a strange man, students who talk about an urban legend, students involved in a love triangle, coffee shop workers, men who witnessed an accident, an otolaryngologist who has a crush on a hospital employee, idol university students, a mother who looks for a child and suddenly the characters disappear. Laughing, the world comes to an end.

Gukaryu Ishii is known for his satiric filmmaking style that often highlights human alienation. His 1982 film Crazy Thunder Road was criticized for its benign portrayal of violence. In 1984 he made The Back-Firing Family, a dark parody of the Japanese family. His later films, Angel Dust, August in the Water, and Labyrinth of Dreams all have to do with murder, mystery, and the meaning of life. Knowledge of this background is useful when considering his latest, Isn’t Anyone Alive?, for it assuredly strays from traditional storytelling, and delves into the darker side of life without hesitation or lack of irony.

Ishii creates a sterile world of white-washed walls, whether confined to hospital rooms or in a cafe, and this perfectly reflects the lack of sympathy that creeps along throughout the film. In the beginning we aren’t sure what to expect, yet we are certainly awaiting blood to ruin all of those clean sheets. A hospital patient sits eerily in her room, in a long white gown, and she resembles a spirit. Yet then we are interrupted by a group of college students who sit outside and discuss urban legends, just like in a teen thrasher movie (Scream, Urban Legend, Lesson of Evil). Meanwhile over at the cafe, a young man sits with his girlfriend and the woman he got pregnant, as they dramatically decide what to do. All of these different story lines resemble different genres of filmmaking, yet the quality that links them all together is death.

An electro-dubstep soundtrack pumps in the background and we are unsure how to feel, yet perhaps reminded, along with the barren set, that the answer is nothing. All of the questions we have, including which lover to chose, dissipate when we are faced with the end of the world. Ishii and Shiro Maeda make a good point in their screenplay, reminding us that we often dwell on unimportant matters. So much so in fact, that once faced with the question of life and death we aren’t sure what to do. Social commentary? I’d like to think so. In one scene a pop star is dying, and as he asks a passer-by to stay with him, the passerby accuses him of selfishness, then stating, “Aren’t you dying? Can I go now?” This isn’t only absurdist stylistics, but perhaps a way of reinstating a loss of touch with one another. Better yet, an F-you to previous Ishii critics.

Ishii uses incredibly long, still shots that render it hard to concentrate on the movie. However, this seems to reflect the detached, post-modern nature of the film, for every time I felt myself drifting off, I was awoken by another preposterous comment that had me scratching my head all the while chuckling. Is this the definition of Japanese snarky exploitation horror? At one point, while the characters have a discussion, one intervenes “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m dying.” Is this an unsympathetic portrayal of death or is death just a fact of life? It is rare to see a film that so deliberately laughs at it, yet with such a lack of violence. There is no extreme brutality of the sort as the characters just fall over, thus rendering the film more of a mental beast.

If anything the project lacks predictability, though a looming sense of doom hovers over the university campus that serves as its setting. Shota Sometani has had a career in Japanese horror movies and plays Keisuke, the lonely cafe waiter. His stardom ensures him a loftier role, but we aren’t sure when his shining moment will come, and life seems to drag on as usual. Perhaps even scarier than death itself is the film’s need to smack the audience with its reality. More terrifying than death is the thought of the world moving on afterward. It’s the frankness and lack of romanticism that shakes us to the core.

However, this traces Japanese Horror back to its roots of psychological terror rather than blood gushing gross-outs. It’s no wonder that a variety of American filmmakers have taken notes and remade Japanese stories, for they enter and morph your mind more than any standard horror ever could. If you can endure its length, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Isn’t Anyone Alive? in all of its original sarcasm-infused philosophy.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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