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Alive (Ryuhei Kitamura 2002)



Genre: Sci-Fi Action

review in one breath

Ryuhei Kitamura is undoubtedly one of Japan's stellar directors when it comes to contemporary Horror or Sci-Fi action. Alive is Kitamura's fourth film and thoroughly carries through with the evolution of his polished style, character development, and delivery of visceral action. This evolution can clearly be seen through the progression of Kitamura's prior three films, Heat After Dark (1996), Down to Hell (1996), and Versus (2000). In Alive, Kitamura channels his efforts into a cinematic recreation of the science-fiction manga by Tsutomu Takahashi of the same name. (Kitamura also later reproduced a TV series based on another manga by Tsutomu entitled Sky High (2003).) Kitamura brings to the project most of the star power of his earlier films, as well as few new (beautiful) faces including Ryo (who will later star in Kitamura's Azumi (2003)) and Koyuki (of Kairo fame). Yes, two beautiful women with no last names. Hmmm.

Unlike Kitamura's preceding films, all of which take place within expansive, natural settings, the storyline of Alive is set entirely within the dark, metallic confines of a secret governmental research compound. The setting brought back stark memories of some of the lower depths of Quake where vast steel doors and corridors are barely illumined by small dim bulbs somewhere overhead. The compound was made to contain, restrain and imprison the potentially dangerous outcomes of secret research within. And by "potentially dangerous" I mean apocalyptically dangerous in a dynamic which will be strangely reminiscent for those familiar with Akira.

Kitamura's penchant for choosing an protagonist with questionable moral credentials is again demonstrated here. The main character in Heat After Dark was basically a yakuza killer (Atsuro Watabe) with a soft spot for his young daughter. In Down to Hell the audience finds itself cheering for the zombie. And in Versus, we were all on the side of Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) who killed a mere 43 innocent victims before he even enters stage right. The protagonist in Alive is a character named Tenshu Yashiro (Hideo Sakaki - bad guy extraordinaire in Versus) who was on death row for killing three men involved in the rape of his girlfriend, Misako (Erika Oda).

When Tenshu survives the electric chair (Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. You can read it off the DVD case.) -- for reasons which are all too politically correct (btw)-- he is granted the choice to go for another round of voltage or be set "free" through participation in an experiment. Choosing the latter (duh!) he soon finds himself in the bowels of aforesaid research compound, sharing an expansive cell with another brutal killer. As tensions and violence rise between the new roommates, researchers stare intently into closed circuit monitors analyzing every moment.

We eventually discover that the scientists are experimenting with a powerful "isomer" of mysterious origin. Its undoubtedly no news to you chemistry buffs (but I had to look this up) that an "isomer" refers to a molecular particle which has the same atomic number and mass as, yet differs by a single property from, another particle (which in turn would be an "isomer" of our particle). Thus if you have one "isomer" there is undoubtedly another one lurking around somewhere. And sure enough!

Our isomer jumps from human to human, ever seeking a better host which possesses a greater degree of "blood lust". As to whether or not an isomer could possibly jump, let alone evaluate someone's dysfunction is simply beyond the point, because Kitamura fans will be happy to learn that this little isomer's sole purpose in life is to stomp the living daylights out of every other breathing creature. (I guess I can't say "every other breathing creature", since I doubt our little isomer has lungs either.) The secretive researchers are highly interested in turning the anti-social isomer into a powerful military weapon. Yes, that's right. An indomitable, isomer-berserk, super-human killing machine.(!!) In fact, they have already begun DNA experiments in another hidden facility, combining another isomer (get it?) into the human genetic code. Uh oh.

All isomeric hell will break loose when Tenshu ultimately inhales the isomer. (!) He then begins a little research of his own... into the specific pain thresholds of his captors! By the time he has run out of fresh subjects to research (as they now lay in crumpled heaps on the floor), he must confront his isomeric twin, a DNA-engineered monster (none other than Tak Sakaguchi!) bred solely for qualities of blood-lust and generally meanness. In the (inevitable) scene where the diabolic mastermind smugly explains his entire scheme to the audience, we learn that the real project involves finding a way to combine the two isomers into one single bone-crunching, killing machine host. Get it? If each isomer naturally migrates to the strongest host, this berserkoid showdown is for isomeric keeps where the loser goes home chemically naked, tail tucked between wimpy legs, and the winner is doubly chemically enhanced. Yowza!

Now that I have so skillfully set the stage...

What follows is undoubtedly an evolutionary step in Ryuhei Kitamura's delivery of cinematic action and style. Those coming to Alive from Kitamura's previous films with high expectations of cutting-edge eye-candy and testosterone-fueled combat will certainly not be disappointed. This action is intense, but here (isomeric?) "powers" rather than swords and guns are the weapons du jour. In addition, rather than being able to rely on his ability to cinematically capture characters in vast settings, Kitamura must here limit himself to the claustrophobic confines of the research facility cell. In order to avoid the visual boredom of his audience, Kitamura employs a number of cinematic styles and embellishments, the most memorable of which permeate the final action scenes. These added styles create within Alive an aura and impression which easily captures the manga world from whither this storyline derives.

Alive is sometimes referred to (informally) as a Versus 2. This may be plausible for a couple reasons, though in the end, I believe the claim that this is a Versus sequel is a bit too misleading. There are undoubtedly similarities between the two. In both, Hideo Sakaki faces off with Tak Sakaguchi as antagonist and protagonist, though here their roles are reversed. (Recall that Sakaguchi is here cast as the DNA-engineered monster.) Also, in Alive, Kitamura literally breaks the storyline into chapters, each initiated with text on the screen declaring the chapter title. The chapter which contains the battle of these two isomer-fueled warriors is entitled... you guessed it: "Versus". And technically speaking Alive could plausibly fit into the world of Versus if we view Alive as just one of the many karmic reincarnations of our heroes (based on the fact that the same characters play these roles). But, while viewing Alive, the impact of these similarities was very subtle. Takaguchi's appearance, for example is quite brief and all but obscured by his monster costume. (That costume, by the way, is testimony to the fact that Kitamura is better at cinematography than costume design!) In addition, the setting, styles and storyline of these two are drastically different. There is no talk of portal, zombies, sacrificed maidens, or anything supernatural in Alive, although these were the pillars driving the storyline of Versus. Thus my simple warning is that those looking for a sequel or continuance of the story of Versus may not find what they are looking for in Alive.

Having said that, however, those looking for more of Kitamura's action-packed, visceral worlds will undoubtedly find what they are looking for.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Director Ryuhei Kitamura expands to new heights his audience's experience into cinematic action. Less blood and guts than his previous films. Alot of isomer-fueled hand combat. Despite the presence of a couple babes (neither of which have a last name!) no skin, no smooches. Not even a wink. Here the emphasis is on the dark, metallic world Kitamura creates and the cinematic styles he (successfully) employs to keep his audience from getting visually bored.

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