Third Window Films
On an ordinary day, as a group of ordinary students go about their usual business, there are strange urban myths circulating around campus. Then, without warning or reason, everyone starts dropping down dead...
If I were to tell you that “Isn’t Anyone Alive?” is a comedy, I probably wouldn’t need to add that it’s a very offbeat one. In fact, I’d say that it’s not so much offbeat as playing to a different time signature to the usual cinematic fare: the delivery and subject matter of the story are far removed from whimsical sitcom or zany slapstick. Those of us who have a satirical streak and, it has to be said, a fair bit of patience will be in our element here but it’s not what most viewers would expect from a comedy film, even a dark satirical one.
Simply put, “Isn’t Anyone Alive?” is everything that your typical apocalyptic horror movie isn’t. While most involve creepy atmospherics, simmering tension and gore-spattered shocks there isn’t one moment in this film that will make you jump out of your seat. Instead, the sudden demise of each victim is low-key and met with decidedly odd reactions from those around them.
This is the point where “Isn’t Anyone Alive?” really deviates from the standard formula. The crucial ingredients of oblivious victims and a mysterious agent of death are the only recognisable plot devices here: the rest of the production is unexpected and actually very interesting. The size of the cast is intimidating at first and it’s a bit of a chore to keep track of them and how they’re connected to each other, but there’s a method in the madness of this dialogue-heavy and somewhat tedious approach.
I eventually came to realise that this deadpan offering is more than just a portrait of ordinary people just prior to an unforeseen disaster: it is in fact sharply satirical and in some ways quite clever. The fact that each sudden death is met with such an odd reaction is in itself refreshing, because we’ve come to expect film characters to utter witty or profound dying words in their final scenes. Here we see people fall down without a shred of dignity and pathos, sometimes mid-sentence while trying to spit out a quote-able line for those left behind to remember them by.
I must admit that these ignoble ends are grimly amusing. Not in a laugh-out-loud way; they instead build up to form a dry and quite scathing social commentary on contemporary society. I can’t think of many other films that make pointed criticism of today’s culture with the aid of black humour in the way that this film does: Battle Royale had some wonderfully hard-hitting moments of emotional clarity amongst the carnage and of course the likes of Sion Sono and the late Satoshi Kon have been known to dish out pitch-black comedy that balances perfectly on the knife-edge between ‘safe’ satire and insensitivity. “Isn’t Anyone Alive?” is I think in the same league as far as ‘blackness’ and cynicism are concerned, but stylistically it brings its own little flourishes to the table.
The cinematography has some great moments, making use of split screen and letterboxing/pillarboxing techniques, and the incorporation of the background music into the scene cuts is excellent (there are contributions from guitarist Hisako Tabuchi, who is I believe a member of indie bands Number Girl, Bloodthirsty Butchers and Toddle). It’s very striking in an experimental, playful kind of way, which unsurprisingly works in its favour given the morbid nature of the narrative.
Unfortunately this film is, by its very nature, rather hard to sit through. In making statements about the trivial nature of everyday life it requires a long, verbose build-up filled with irrelevant conversations and inane observations amongst a group of characters who are often not even particularly likable. The story’s theatrical origins – screenplay writer Shiro Maeda adapted it from his play of the same name – show through all too often with the end result being a film that, discounting the fun cinematic tricks, doesn’t do much on the screen that it wouldn’t have been able to do on stage.
I must confess that I didn’t know anything about Ishii before now, so I was to my shame unaware of his cult status. Had I been familiar with the variety of his work I may have actually been disappointed with how “Isn’t Anyone Alive?” plays out. On one hand I found the attempts to liven up a stage play for cinema audiences admirable, and I have a twisted sense of humour that gravitates towards satire, social commentary and the absurd. On the other hand the loose, poker-faced delivery makes for a rather tedious viewing experience so in terms of comedy it’s more like a shaggy dog story.
Is it satirical? Yes. Is it well-acted? Yes? Is it clever? From a narrative and technical point of view, yes. Is it funny? Here’s the peculiar thing: all the way through I was resisting the urge to fast-forward through the slow bits in case I missed something important, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that I started to chuckle inwardly. At the time it was surreal as it was dull, but little moments in its sprawling narrative – be it a flock of birds dropping unceremoniously from the sky, a man agonising over what his dying words should be or a young woman trying to maintain a quintessentially Japanese air of politeness as she doubles up in terminal agony (well, I did say it’s a black comedy...) – stuck in my memory.
“Isn’t Anyone Alive?” is difficult to judge in that it is likely to polarise opinion. Even I loved it and hated it simultaneously: I admired its desire to break from convention, but felt frustrated at how those departures were far less entertaining.