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Dragonhead (Iida Joji 2003)



Genre: Sci-Fi Apocalyptic

review in one breath

Attention fans of the apocalypse! Coming to you live (!) from the FIERY END OF THE WORLD is the visually stunning Dragon Head!

Based on the long running manga series by Mochizuki Minetaro, director Iida Joji has created a thoroughly compelling vision of the decimation of civilized Japan. Dragon Head offers perhaps a thoroughly Japanese perspective of the nature of the End. Unlike most Western apocalyptic films which generally resolve (!) through either human ingenuity pitted against Mother Nature (ie "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact") or the triumph of the Terminator over Satan ("End of Days"), Dragon Head presents a world already utterly overwhelmed with catastrophe and the human race on the brink of self destruction, as the few remaining survivors kill each other off out of panic and hysteria.

The story opens with a horrendous train crash deep inside a mountainous tunnel as an entire high school rides the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto for their class trip. The young boy Teru Aoki (Tsumabuki Satoshi) wakes to find all his friends dead and panics as he learns he is encapsulated deep within the mountain. He eventually stumbles upon two other survivors, a female classmate Ako Seto (Kanda Sayaka - Yes! the daughter of Japan pop idol Matsuda Seiko!) and Nobuo, the boy who is always being picked on in class.

Teru and Ako quickly learn that Nobuo has lost his mind and has turned into a retributive, murderous maniac. As Nobuo stalks them in a game of cat and mice in the crumbling tunnel, Teru locates a dangerous route of escape and struggles to help the wounded Ako make the VERY long ascent through sheer rock.

When they finally emerge from the mountain, the landscape has changed so drastically that they recognize neither the land nor sky. The entire mountain is covered in thick, deep ash which rains down from the sky. As they look toward the horizon they see immense plumes of ash shooting miles into the sky. Fearing that they are perhaps the only survivors, due to the ironic fortune of being buried deep within the mountain and thereby protected from whatever happened, they start their dazed trek down the mountain and back toward Tokyo.

The story of Dragon Head is the story of Teru and Ako's arduous walk back to Tokyo. I can see how this would easily sustain a long running manga involving this setting and these characters. Along their way they encounter horrendous sights and shockingly debased survivors. More than once they find themselves fighting for their lives or in danger of being separated from each other. As they travel they hear strange rumors regarding the source of the catastrophe and the dire effects it is having upon the human nervous system, which it slowly drives insane. When they eventually hear that a semblance of order and food reserves have been established in Tokyo, their hope is renewed. But what they find there is only a desolate, pitiful, mind-numbing salvation. And then the REAL catastrophe comes. (Yowza!)

As I said earlier, this movie is visually stunning. Whether of the claustrophobic mountainous tomb they start out in or the bizarrely serene landscapes flooded in white ashen plumes, the imagery is convincingly realistic. I felt that many of these scenes tapped into the horrendous imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, images which are undoubtedly embedded in the Japanese psyche. The world which Mochizuki and Iida paint is literally one of desolation far beyond the point of any rescue by human ingenuity or strength of resolve. This world is in the midst of crumbling before our eyes and the devastation has only started.

Besides the thoroughly absorbing struggle of Teru and Ako to survive their way to Toyko is a second, darker sub-theme involving the de-evolution and destruction of human nature and conscience. Dragon Head thoroughly explores the shocking lengths to which both individuals and societies will attempt to elude fear and pain in the face of madness and extinction.

Definitely one worth checking out. This is clearly science fiction rather than horror and for that reason Dragon Head seems to aggressively pursue larger, visionary pictures of the natural world and human nature. I also appreciated that the story was mature enough not to try to explain everything to the audience. This greatly increased the mystery and sense of nightmare regarding the omnipotent source of the catastrophe.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Excellent Japanese twist to the standard "apocalyptic" formula being cranked out in the West. By the time you arrive on the scene, most of the world's population is (very recently) obliterated (and unburied). Those who can still breathe tend to pick up the nearest weapon and then hunt for someone else who can still breathe. How can you be thinking about sex when the world is ending!!? Sheesh!! (But then again, ...) Compelling futuristic vision of the implosion of the civilized world. Brings together some recognizable facets, but basically presents a unique perspective.

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