Film Review: ‘I Am a Hero’

The zombie-movie market may be saturated, but Shinsuke Sato's grisly manga adaptation is a distinctly lively undead tale.

'I Am a Hero' Review: An
Photo courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

There’s no mistaking that Japanese helmer Shinsuke Sato’s Midnight Madness-ready title “I Am A Hero” is an adaptation of a manga — specifically, Kengo Hanazawa’s comic of the same name. Sato has never strayed far from the form: His directorial CV is a list of live-action and animated feature-length film versions of popular manga titles, and his cinematic style favors angles and framing that feel directly lifted from the page and brought crisply to life.

That could suggest a lack of dynamism in the final result, or a slavish aestheticization of the image — as in the Hollywood adaptations of “Sin City” or “The Spirit,” for example. But Sato does not just get the style of his film from the graphic tradition of its source material. He and co-writer Akiko Nogi also understand the other secret of the medium’s massive popularity: the addictive, page-turning genre thrills it can deliver. And so “I Am A Hero” careens along in a giddy, bloodsoaked, immensely pleasurable rush, propelled by an enthusiasm as infectious as a bite from the undead, that makes even the hoariest beats of the plot seem dipped in bright, bloody newness. The genre is beyond oversubscribed now, but you get the ebullient sense that everyone involved with “I Am A Hero” approached it like it wasn’t just the first zombie movie to be made in Japan, but like it was the first one ever, ever.

It’s not that the movie zombie was ever exactly a pretty thing, but a standard look has evolved along the lines of the rotting corpses of “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead.” Somehow Sato and his visual effects team, doing God-level (or at least Rick Baker-level) work with practical effects and a whole Fourth of July’s worth of squibs, have designed a different, more grotesque zombie than we’ve seen recently. The zombification process — by which veins blacken, blood-clotted eyeballs short-circuit and bones crunch, emitting grisly, gristly cracking noises — begets genuinely horrific creatures that feel pitched somewhere between the malfunctioning “woman suit” of “Total Recall” and the half-melted Nazis of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Their treble-jointed locomotion is even more bizarre: They scuttle like crabs, “Exorcist”-style, or flip and contort like gymnasts on PCP, unconcerned with whether or not they stick the landing. Zombies have been gross for a long time; here they’re gross, surprising and, with elements borrowed from J-horror, actually scary.

The story is your basic male wish-fulfilment nonsense: Once-promising manga artist Hideo (an engagingly earnest Yô Ôizumi) gets yet another professional rejection and is thrown out by his girlfriend, on the very day an odd, unexplained virus breaks out and Tokyo goes feral overnight. In a terrifically bonkers scene, his girlfriend becomes one of the first victims; she’s followed in short order by everyone else he knows. The mild-mannered, perma-baseball-capped Hideo — who resembles the archetypical target viewer for this film so exactly it might as well be a first-person shooter — takes to the streets, carrying his prized possession: a shotgun that he has never fired. The film has no particular pretensions to political relevance, but for American audiences, or indeed audiences familiar with gun-infested American genre films, this subplot holds its own kind of exotic fascination. In this environment, guns are so rare that everyone assumes Hideo’s is a fake; when they discover it isn’t, they will kill to get it. Post-catastrophe, in the land of strict gun control, it seems the dude with the double-barreled shotgun is king.

The gun certainly becomes the point of contention once Hideo falls into company with a de rigueur Japanese schoolgirl (Kasumi Arimura) whom he vows to protect, and they happen upon a colony of survivors holed up atop a de rigueur shopping mall. The survivors, including nurse-turned commando Yabu (Masami Nagasawa) are led by the shady Iura (Yu Yoshizawa), who eyes Hideo’s gun covetously. A series of power-grabs and counter-coups ensues, while the zombies groaning and shambling below are learning new tricks.

If it sounds episodic, it certainly is: another quirk of serialized manga storytelling that is more or less directly translated to the screen. And though the overarching quest — to get to Mount Fuji for vaguely spoiler-y reasons — is established early, the film ends still very far away from the snow-capped destination. It’s thus shamelessly set up for a sequel, and though it’s inarguably overlong, narratively familiar and regrettably regressive in its sidelining of would-be kickass female characters, “I Am A Hero” is such gory, inventively violent fun that a follow-up is actually an appealing prospect. If nothing else, it should keep Japan’s fake movie-blood manufacturing industry in clover for years to come.

Film Review: ‘I Am a Hero’

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Midnight Screenings), July 3, 2016. (Also at Sitges, Stockholm, SXSW festivals.) Running time: <strong>126 </strong><b>MIN. </b>(Original title: "Ai amu a hiro")

  • Production: (Japan) A Toho Company (in Japan) release of a Toho Pictures production in association with <span class="s1">Avex Pictures, Shogakukan, Dentsu, WOWOW, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners</span>. (International sales: Toho Company, Tokyo.) Produced by <span class="s1">Michiaki Yamasaki, Shiro Kido. </span>Executive producers, <span class="s1">Minami Ichikawa, Yoshiki Terashima, Masakazu Kubo, Riichiro Nakamura, Akira Tanaka, Tenshoku Iwata, Masanori Yumiya, Makoto Takahashi, Katsumi Chiyo, Eisaku Yoshikawa, Shinichiro Tsuzuki, Koji Bandou, Naoto Miyamoto.</span>
  • Crew: Directed by <span class="s1">Shinsuke Sato. </span>Screenplay, <span class="s1">Akiko Nogi, adapted from the manga by Kengo Hanazawa</span>. Camera (color), <span class="s1">Taro Kawazu</span>; editor, <span class="s1">Tsuyoshi Imai</span>; music, <span class="s1">Nima Fakhrara</span>; music supervisor, Hirohide Shida; production designer, <span class="s1">Iwao Saito</span>; costume designer, <span class="s1">Masae Miyamoto</span>; visual effects supervisor, Makoto Kamiya.
  • With: <p class="p1"><span class="s1">Yô Ôizumi, Masami Nagasawa, Kasumi Arimura, Hisashi Yoshizawa, Yoshinori Okada, Yu Tokui, Nana Katase, Jin Katagiri. </span></p>