Takashi Miike fans exult in every spurt of blood he gleefully throws onscreen; then there’s the rest of the world. Guaranteed to delight those with a hankering for deathmatch-survival mangas (far more “Battle Royale” than “The Hunger Games”), “As the Gods Will” finds the Japanese gore-meister returning to high school, where classic toys come alive to play lethal games with students. There’s a confused sci-fi element and a perfunctory nod to society’s benumbed attitude toward violence, but really, the pic is just an excuse for more splatter from a director who, as always, knows his target audience. It raked in $1.5 million its first weekend at home in November, though its box-office hold slipped quickly.
Outside Japan, the movie will draw the expected audience of gore nerds, especially on college campuses, and is likely to see vigorous streaming traffic from the sort of teens who might find themselves muttering, “Dear God, my life is boring.” Such is the line uttered by Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi), a willowy twink who soon takes back his words when a Daruma doll starts massacring his classmates in a round of “Red light, green light, 1-2-3.” The red-headed votive doll plays a game: When he turns to the blackboard, students can try to push the off button on his back, but when he spins round and sees anyone moving, he explodes their heads, causing red beads to pop out of their lifeless bodies. Needless to say, everyone dies but Shun.
You have to hand it to Miike; he certainly knows how to start things off with a bang (and never manages to top his opening). Shun encounters pretty blonde chum Ichika (Hirona Yamazaki), who’s also survived a similar massacre, and they make their way to the school gym, where a giant cat doll with a hoop attached to his collar forces students dressed as mice to throw a bell into the hoop. Miss, and you’re dead. Amaya (Ryunosuke Kamiki), the peer with an evil glint in his eye, succeeds before everyone is wiped out, allowing the survivors to continue to the next challenge, this time in a giant cube hovering over Tokyo.
Confused? Wait, it’s just getting started. News reports announce that giant cubes are floating above many of the world’s cities, and already 10 million youths have been slaughtered. Or exploded. With the deadly games broadcast internationally, presumably by whatever alien power is in control, people on Earth begin calling the survivors “God’s children,” adding a quasi-religious element to a plot that’s already heavily piecemeal in nature; there’s a reason why Miike is so popular with the ADD generation.
Occasionally it seems like “As the Gods Will” is trying to make some kind of platitudinous statement about the level of violence in society: Flashbacks fill in background details such as Shun’s addiction to bloody videogames, and the fact that his friend Shoko (Mio Yuki) was bullied when younger. A steady diet of violence on the news is also alluded to, yet such meager acknowledgments feel like the director is toying with his detractors, pretending to recognize a causal link but really merrily thumbing his nose as he piles on the carnage.
In truth, it’s hard to not chuckle over killer Matrioshka dolls, which is precisely what Miike relies on — it’s all fun and games. Even so, it’s becoming increasingly hard to laugh over school massacres, no matter the perpetrator. By now the helmer’s regular d.p., Nobuyasu Kita, is an old hand at lensing brightly-colored splatter fests, just as frequent editor Kenji Yamashita milks the maximum amount of tension-filled amusement out of every cut. Kaori Otagaki’s special effects, animating the various dolls (did I mention the wooden polar bear?) are topnotch. Part two of the manga is already being serialized; part two of the film is surely in the works.