A Japanese teen manages to stop an alien infection before it spreads to his brain, but is then forced to coexist with the mutant creature when it takes control of his right arm in “Parasyte.” Part horror movie, part buddy comedy and part superhero origin story, this clever twist on the classic body-snatcher formula — adapted from a popular manga and divided into two features (this first installment opening Nov. 29, followed by part two in 2015) — couldn’t be in better hands: Blockbuster helmer Takashi Yamazaki (whose “The Eternal Zero” earned $70 million domestic) stands to achieve not just domestic domination, but a serious grip on genre aficionados’ imaginations worldwide.
Yamazaki rose through the ranks of Japanese helmers by picking projects that cater to his strengths as one of the industry’s leading visual-effects talents. In theory, this project rivals 1994’s Jim Carrey comedy “The Mask” with its potential for shape-shifting sight gags and Plastic Man-style stunts, although Yamazaki wisely keeps the effects in check, using his skills to support the story, rather than the other way around.
Instead of casting an over-the-top local comic in the lead, he centers the action on a relatably normal kid, Shinichi Izumi (endearingly played by Shota Sometani in his biggest role yet). When a shower of glowing space orbs falls around Tokyo, the gross, brain-seeking earworms that emerge go looking for human hosts, but the creepy-crawler that finds Shinichi is thwarted by his headphones, entering his body via his right hand instead. Shinichi awakens just in time to apply a tourniquet, thereby containing the creature’s takeover to that appendage, giving new meaning to the notion of “phantom limb.”
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Already a little awkward at school, Shinichi finds it even harder to act normal when a mutant eyeball and blubbering mouth pop up on the back of his hand. Next thing he knows, his hand is stretching and reconfiguring at will, its preferred form being a vaguely cute, fleshy pyramid with wavy arms and a 360-degree eyestalk.
This weird entity, which Shinichi nicknames “Righty,” may look strange, but clearly represents a more intelligent life form, teaching itself advanced Japanese overnight and devouring any and all information within its reach. Meanwhile, the other parasites — who’ve successfully infiltrated the brains of their respective hosts — have more sinister appetites, devouring any humans unlucky enough to cross their paths. They do not come in peace, although their true intentions remain obscure (yet guessable) until the pic’s final moments, when a parasite-controlled politician wins an election that puts “them” in control.
Yamazaki’s decision to split “Parasyte” into two parts tests the theory — largely untried since “Unbreakable” — that most superhero movies are basically divided into two halves as it is: an exposition-heavy stretch in which the protagonist discovers and gradually comes to terms with his new powers, followed by some sort of epic confrontation with whatever villainous force the movie can conjure to oppose him. Action junkies tend to fidget through the setup (where these films show the greatest potential for originality), while normal moviegoers’ eyes glaze over when the CG carnage kicks in.
While hardly a conventional example of the genre (Shinichi’s transformation is more of a liability than an asset), “Part 1” handily stands alone, joining pics such as “Twilight” and “Teen Wolf” in which a supernatural change stands in for the unexpected transformations brought on by puberty, when certain body parts have been known to develop a mind of their own. (One of Righty’s first impulses is to grope the girl Shinichi has a crush on at school.)
Though the big battles for the fate of the planet presumably still lie ahead, Yamazaki doesn’t skimp on skirmishes here, introducing a trio of parasite people with seriously lethal potential. If “Part 2” represents the macro view of what these alien invaders have planned, “Part 1” keeps things micro, focusing specifically on how they impact Shinichi’s life: Their actions conveniently center around his school, his would-be g.f. (Ai Hashimoto) and his mother (Kimiko Yo), a sweet old lady who stumbles across a wounded parasite just as it’s looking for a new host.
Another of the aliens has taken control of Shinichi’s chemistry teacher, Ryoko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu), but instead of posing a predictable threat to the students, she approaches her new identity as a form of science experiment. She’s intrigued by the way Righty manages to coexist with his human and serves as the go-between for Shinichi and the parasites, whom we still don’t know whether to trust. Even Righty, who would die if separated from his host, seems undecided whether to threaten or protect Shinichi at first. More interesting still is Ryoko’s decision to get pregnant, wondering whether her maternal instincts will override her potentially genocidal programming.
It’s probably best not to dwell on the biology of “Parasyte.” Because the effects are digital rather than practical, there’s no need for Yamazaki to limit himself to things that are physically possible. As a result, the parasites’ faces function like virtual Swiss Army knives, splitting at will to reveal any number of sharp blades, whereas Righty is limited to fighting with Shinichi’s fingers. Relying on viscera-rich sound design to patch over any plausibility concerns, “Parasyte” marks an entertaining new iteration of the body-horror subgenre, as if someone had grafted a very dark high-school comedy onto a David Cronenberg movie.
While much of “Parasyte” relies on our familiarity with past pics to make its job easier (like the assumption that one shouldn’t involve the authorities because they’ll merely want to conduct invasive tests), Yamazaki and co-writer Ryota Kosawa still manage to surprise, weaving subtle touches amid the more brazen twists, which should delight American auds whose viewing habits put them two steps ahead of locally produced genre offerings — much as the Korean monster movie “The Host” did a few years back.
That pic serves as a good point of comparison for “Parasyte,” which also manages to be playful and intense in equal measure, offering a comparably high level of production values across the board. Most of the time, the film boasts a sleek, shadowy look, though it brightens up considerably when Shinichi’s at school, which is where the big showdown unspools. (Again, the fact that there are casualties seems very un-American.) A robust score adds yet another dimension of suspense, as composer Naoki Sato’s “Godzilla”-style bombast makes the film’s scope feel bigger — and more than deserving of its forthcoming sequel.