If there’s one thing Third Window Films have proved themselves adept at, it’s finding those smaller, off kilter and cultish films that often fall through the cracks. Grateful Dead, the deliberate misspelling the title of which is only the first sign of its oddness, is the latest find in what might be thought of as “weird cinema”. Evoking comparisons with Sion Sono’s Love Exposure thanks to its Christianising themes, wry tone and sheer craziness, Greatful Dead is not all together as successful but is likely to find its own fans through its undeniably cultish appeal.
Nami, like many movie heroines, starts by recounting her childhood as a lonely, neglected child. The younger of two sisters, she desperately tries to get the attention of her mother who is only interested in saving disadvantaged children in other countries whilst ignoring the needs of her own two daughters, or her father who is so entirely wrapped up in their mother that he’s barely noticed the two girls either. Eventually, after her mother leaves and her father slowly disintegrates, Nami becomes increasingly isolated. After inheriting a sizeable fortune, grown-up Nami wastes her time in idle pursuits before hitting on her favourite hobby - an amateur anthropological study of the “Solitarian” or those who have driven themselves completely mad through loneliness. Her favourite kind of Solitarian is randy old men whom she likes to watch as they spiral deeper into depravity before eventually reaching their end game. Old Mr. Shiomi, who was once something of a big shot but is now an embittered old man, is her perfect specimen but after he receives a visit from a pretty Korean Christian missionary and becomes “reborn”, her observational project is ruined. Mr Shiomi’s been stolen by God - what lengths will Nami go to to get him back?
Of course, the irony is that Nami is the biggest Solitarian of them all, and the one she’ll never be able to identify. In the accompanying DVD interviews, the director states his intention to highlight the increasing numbers of lonely, older people in Japan thanks to the declining birth rate and fracturing of traditional community bonds, but in actual fact many of the Solitarians Nami identifies are younger people and some of them even appear to have quite serious mental issues which require more serious intervention. Taking frequent field trips and noting down rare specimens in a little notebook like some deranged “twitcher”, Nami joyfully enjoys the darker side of her hobby as her favourite part seems to be watching lonely people die at the zenith of their craziness. In fact. both she and Mr. Shiomi have both in some senses chosen their lonely lives as both have rejected the interest of family members - Nami the insistences of her sister that the normal is best and to be strived for and Mr Shiomi those of his son (who may or may not be mainly interested in his money).
There is then, obviously, a veneer of social commentary, though it feels fairly thin at best. The main appeal is in the degree of tonal shifts that occur throughout the film. Starting out in a similar way to many a quirky comedy as young Nami goes to extreme lengths just to get some kind of attention from her indifferent parents to her carefree adult life, the film plunges off a cliff face about two-thirds of the way through thanks to Mr. Shiomi’s “betrayal”. Where another film would end with Nami meeting another lonely person and becoming slightly less unhinged, Greatful Dead veers into some seriously dark alleyways filled with blood, murder and pensioner rape among other perversions. The wildest thing is the resurgence of Mr. Shiomi, as he decides he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this anymore! Fighting back in an equally strange way (why does no one ever just call the police? No, sharpening a mop into a spear seems like a more rational solution), the furious battle between subject and observer is quite literally in the lap of the gods.
Greatful Dead is an undeniably enjoyable, wild ride that escalates in a gently expert manner from its black comedy beginnings to exploitation ending but never quite coalesces into something more. Its views on the place of religion in this lonely world seem a little ambiguous - would Mr. Shiomi have opened his door to the male missionary quite as readily as he opened it to a pretty Korean girl, and how long would his quite radical conversion really have lasted? Is the church actually helping some of these elderly people who might just want company or exploiting them? The film doesn’t seem sure, not that it’s that much of a problem. In the end, Grateful Dead is a wild ride through crazy town, destined to become another cult classic entry into the world of wacky Japanese horror.