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Sky High (Kitamura Ryuhei 2003)


Sky High
[Sukai Hai]

Genre: Supernatural Crime Drama

review in one breath

Sky High is based on the popular manga by Tsutomu Takahashi. (Takahashi also authored another manga entitled Alive which director Kitamura Ryuhei cinematically recreated one year prior to this film.) This theatrical version by Kitamura serves as a prequel to the very popular 10-part TV series (entitled Sky High) produced for TV Asahi (which aired in March 2003) for which Kitamura directed the 10th episode. While the TV series focused predominantly on the predicament and adventures of Mina (Shaku Yumiko - who plays the same character in the movie), the Keeper of the Gate through which slain, departed souls must pass, this theatrical version focuses nearly exclusively on the events whereby Mina becomes this Gate Keeper.

Sky High (the movie) is a veritable smorgasbord of genres and includes crime drama, science-fiction, love story, ghost story, and supernatural mythology. On the one hand, this proves beneficial by allowing the storyline to provide a variety of action, drama, and eye-candy. On the other hand, this results in director Kitamura juggling so many balls in the air, including the responsibility to remain consistent in tone and appearance to the TV series, that those elements for which Kitamura is now renowned come across as half-hearted or neglected. I think it is for this reason that such a wide discrepancy in reviews of this film are available. Some reviews declare this to be the most polished and satisfying Kitamura production to date, while others walk away quite disappointed. The latter's disappointment is generally not due to Sky High being a less-than-acceptable film, but due to its failure to deliver an evolutionary step in Kitamura's creative display, which is what most of us want to see. (That is to say, unlike Japanese audiences who would view and judge this movie in light of their enjoyment or interest in the popular TV series, Western viewers will generally come to this movie looking for the Kitamura we all know and love through Versus, etc.)

Sky High follows detective Kanzaki Kohei (Tanihara Shosuke) as he investigates a sudden rash of horrific murders, all of young women, involving the removal of the victim's heart while she is still alive. This investigation becomes personal when, on Kanzaki's wedding day, his fiance Mina comes walking down the aisle, gushing blood all over her white wedding gown from the large hole in her chest from which her heart was removed. (Yes readers, she is walking down the aisle without a heart.) As the now obsessed Kanzaki hunts desperately for Mina's killer, he gradually discovers that a much more diabolical plan may be behind these murders. Meanwhile Mina finds herself standing before an immense Gate within a dark cavern. Before the Gate stands Izuko, a (HOT!) sworded female guardian who explains to Mina what lies before her. Mina is at this Gate because she is a murdered soul, and as such much choose among one of three paths:

  1. She may enter through the Gate and await reincarnation in Heaven.
  2. She may remain upon the earth as a homeless, wandering spirit. Or
  3. She may haunt ("curse") and torment her murderer, the price of which will be Hell.

Fortunately for the plot she is given 12 days to decide the matter, during which she hovers around Kanzaki as he roughs up bad guys and tracks down Mina's killer. Before long, through the help of a chubby, psychic photographer whose photos reveal supernatural entities and premonitions (!!), they discover that the villain is none other than Kudo (Osawa Takao - the samurai in Aragami), a suave and well-known personality who, apparently in his spare time, is hell-bent on resurrecting the Devil in a bid to revive his own beloved from her limbo between life and death. The scheme requires six living hearts, of which Mina's was the fifth, and so the clock is ticking as Kudo sets his diabolical trap to ensare his sixth victim and extract her throbbing organ. (!)

This storyline allows for quite a bit of action and special effects. Besides the gun-toting Kanzaki, sword-flailing babes proliferate. This allows Kitamura to employ his usual methodology of choreographed sword fights accompanied by a high-tempo rock and roll soundtrack. However, it is precisely at these otherwise climactic fight scenes that Kitamura fans will be licking their chops in anticipation of a visual feast, but alas, will inevitably walk away hungry at the benign, watered-down swordsmanship which follows.

Another of Kitamura's favorite themes is present here, namely that of the Underdog suddenly receiving phenomenal powers through which revenge is made possible. (This theme plays a prominent role in Down to Hell (1996), Alive (2002), and Aragami (2002).) It is through such a sudden bestowal of powers that Mina finds herself possessing all the formidability of the Gate Keeper. And it is through this formidability that Sky High ultimately resolves and through which a 10-part TV series sustained wide popularity. (Side note: Popularity of the TV series and this movie spawned a prequel to the movie entitled Sky High 2 (which aired in January 2004), a 9-part TV Asahi series (in which Kitamura did not participate) focusing on Izuko (the initial Gate Keeper in our story whose powers are eventually transferred to Mina) becoming the Gate Keeper and the adventures that followed.)

Sky High certainly has all the elements of an entertaining film, and the story is substantial enough to keep audiences interested. It has some cool special effects and edgy violence, and the overall tone of the movie is quite contemporary, with a good soundtrack and an urban feel to the sets. Although this story heavily references the supernatural and has a fair amount of action, it belongs in the drama genre. It is aimed squarely at mainstream audiences, providing just enough violence, action or shock to titillate that target audience. Fans of the more extreme genres into which much of Kitamura's earlier work falls will certainly notice this difference in directorial intentions.

Is this an entertaining story? Yes.
Is this a step of progress along the trajectory Kitamura has established with his prior films? No.

Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Interesting story based on the popular manga by Tsutomu Takahashi. The storyline is currently quite popular in Japan, spawning this movie and two separate TV series. Slightly bloody, given the fact that the villain's modus operandi involves removal of living hearts. As is the case with most of Kitamura's works, characters are too caught up in the fight for survival to romp in the reeds. There is, however, quite a plethora of lovely, sword-flailing maidens in this story. This story has everything except an alien spaceship fighting Godzilla. (Though Kitamura will soon be giving us that too!) Moderately exciting, albeit mainstream tale of love, ghosts, murder, sword fights, and, of course, the giant EYEBALL (!) of satan himself.

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