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The tired zombie apocalypse genre gets a refreshing shot in the arm in Shinsuke Sato’s I Am a Hero, unsurprisingly adapted from the manga (the Japanese version of YA novels at this point) by Kengo Hanazawa. What took so long for the densely packed and futuristic Tokyo to get in on the zombie act is anyone’s guess, but now that it has it feels like a natural turn of events. Just hyperkinetic enough to create suspense yet willing to slow things down to allow the characters to breathe, the pic is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Fans of outré sci-fi/fantasy along the lines of Tokyo Gore Police will welcome this spin on the zombie sub-genre; others beware. It’s not for the squeamish. Following audience awards at both SXSW and Sitges, I Am a Hero is poised for a long life on the niche festival circuit, potential distribution in Asia, where the source material is familiar, and quite possibly limited overseas release.
In Hero, director Sato balances the manga-tinged gonzo effects and narrative to much better effect than he did in the two-part Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer, which got weighed down by its own misdirected loftiness. Writer Akiko Nogi’s screenplay goes a long way to helping that, trimming down the 20-volume comic to a lean, unadorned single film that’s among the most accessible manga adaptations of the last decade. Paired with unabashedly goofy visual effects (by Makoto Kamiya) and a lunatic finale for the ages, Hero has the honor of being Japan’s first zombie movie as well as setting the bar for those that are sure to follow.
The story starts with 35-year-old manga artist Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi) toiling away for no appreciation for his more famous author boss, daydreaming about schooling co-workers in the business of manga and creating his own best-seller. The funny thing is, Hideo is ironically named. The mealy-mouthed wallflower whose active imagination never leaves his own mind has a name in kanji that literally means “hero,” something he is most definitely not.
While news of an unidentified disease emerges on TV in pleasantly understated info-dumping, Hideo’s girlfriend, tired of his lack of ambition, throws him out but then promptly calls to reunite. Hideo gets first taste of the ZQN virus sweeping the country when he goes home only to be attacked by her, barely escaping unbitten. He grabs his skeet shooting rifle — and permit — and flees. It’s pandemonium on the streets as ZQN spreads like wildfire. One of the delicately subversive jokes at the heart of Hero is that come the apocalypse, Hideo doesn’t come close to living up to his name. He continues to cower, daydream and hide behind others more fit to the task. One is a schoolgirl, Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), who he picks up on a Tokyo freeway and who is later bitten but only partially affected. As the pair make their way to a safe haven at Mount Fuji, they stop at a survivor’s shopping mall colony effectively led by Iura (Yu Yoshizawa), but come into conflict when Hideo’s rifle becomes a coveted prize and he has to conceal Hiromi’s condition.
To suggest Hideo never finds his backbone would take I Am a Hero too far off its genre path, but watching him resist any heroics at almost every turn makes for a gleefully comedic middle finger of sorts to the form’s conventions, which are more than a little ripe for innovation. Hideo’s continued cowardice spreads to hiding behind a nurse (Masami Nagasawa) that takes him and Hiromi in, until the moment comes that he has no other option but to react and somehow get past his crippling devotion to rules: His gun permit does not allow for public use. That reaction is the foundation of the final showdown, which is among the goriest and most head-exploding in recent memory, but just one of a handful of expertly executed action set pieces (the freeway chase stands out) and some truly creepy imagery. The ZQN’s transformed eyes are not soon forgotten. The pic is as technically polished at it is entertaining.
Production company: Toho Pictures
Cast: Yo Oizumi, Masami Nagasawa, Kasumi Arimura, Hisashi Yoshizawa, Yoshinori Okada, Yu Tokui, Nana Katase, Jin Katagiri
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Screenwriter: Akiko Nogi, based on the manga by Kengo Hanazawa
Producer: Michiaki Yamasaki, Shiro Kido?
Executive producer: Minami Ichikawa, Yoshiki Terashima, Masakazu Kubo, Riichiro Nakamura, Akira Tanaka, Tenshoku Iwata, Masanori Yumiya, Makoto Takahashi, Katsumi Chiyo, Eisaku Yoshikawa, Shinichiro Tsuzuki, Koji Bandou, Naoto Miyamoto
Director of photography: Taro Kawazu?
Production designer: Iwao Saito?
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto?
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Music: Nima Fakhrara
World sales: Toho
Not rated, 127 minutes
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