In “Inuyashiki,” an alien encounter mutates two unsuspecting charaters — one, a decrepit salaryman, the other, a neighborhood teenager — into indestructible cyborgs, but contrary to genre conventions, it’s the kid who turns evil, leaving the wussy old codger to save the day. Adapted from a manga by Hiroya Oku, this Japanese genre effort is ably directed by Shinsuke Sato, who foregrounds interpersonal relationships and human emotion over action and effects. The fact that English translations of the 10-volume series exist digitally, while an anime miniseries can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video, should boost the film’s overseas potential. Meanwhile, in a country with the world’s highest elderly population, the action movie’s anti-ageist thrust — demonstrating how undervalued senior citizens kick ass — proves unexpectedly heart-warming.
From “Parasyste” to “Gantz” (also written by Oku), Japanese science fiction is rife with stories of humans merging with androids or aliens. Of this tradition, “Inuyashiki” best recalls the seminal “Tetsuo” body-horror series directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, especially in the way its cyborg characters fire gunshots via their index fingers. Even so, the film displays little of the heavy-metal fetishism or trippy cyberpunk style that made the “Tetsuo” series a ’90s cult classic. Sato, who boasts a track record for bringing some top-ranking manga to the big screen (including “Gantz” and “The Library Wars: The Last Mission”), handles such mainstream works with an eye on entertaining storytelling, though a stylist he is not.
A deadbeat white-collar worker who forever beavers away in the lower rungs, Ichiro Inuyashiki (Noritake Kinashi) is what the Japanese commonly refer to as hirashain. His boss verbally abuses him at work, while at home, his wife and two teenage kids Mari (Ayaka Miyoshi) and Takeshi (Nayuta Fukuzaki) despise him. Although he has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, his family is so apathetic, he can’t even grab their attention to break the news.
After moving to a cramped suburban house (his name ironically means “dog-mansion”), he takes in abandoned mutt Hanako. One evening, while walking the cute Shiba-inu in the park, he’s blinded by an unnatural light. When he regains consciousness, nothing seems amiss until he drinks miso soup for breakfast, causing mechanical components like turbo cylinders and gun barrels to jut out of his body. Not only is his cancer gone, but he even has the power to heal any sickness.
Also exposed to the alien light in the park, Mari’s classmate Hiro Shishigami (Takeru Satoh of the “Rurouni Kenshin” series) is similarly transformed, immediately making the lethal-weapon upgrades to his body. After capriciously executing a bourgeois family whose smugness he loathes, Hiro devolves from vigilante intentions to sheer blood sport — not unlike Yagami Light, the serial killer in “Death Note,” which should come as no surprise, since Sato directed the 2016 sequel “Death Note: Light Up the World.”
Though “Inuyashiki” isn’t anywhere in the same league as the initial “Death Note” film trilogy in terms of brilliant plotting or character chemistry, Sato’s direction and Hiroshi Hashimoto’s screenplay are easy to follow and more grounded in human psychology and motivation. The elderly hero’s meek submission to the cruel jibes of those around him should touch a chord with Japanese men who contributed to the Bubble Economy, but are now shunned by society. “I’m just scrap metal,” the character says at one point. What re-energizes Inuyashiki is not invincible combat power, but his newfound ability to heal, which makes him feel useful again.
Meanwhile, in a new show of manliness from his typically boyish co-star, Sato flaunts a ripped torso, serving as a cruel contrast to Kinashi, whose cyber-weapons look comically out-of-place exploding from his flabby, wrinkled body. The film fleshes out the younger cyborg’s character with abundant backstory, revealing his caring and fiercely loyal nature through his urge to protect his single mother and bullied friend Ando (Kanata Hongo). His willingness to accept rather than abuse the fawning adoration of his classmate Shion (Fumi Nikaido) sets him apart from misogynistic male protagonists so often found in Japanese teen romances and pop culture overall.
As Shishigami becomes emboldened by his invincibility, it seems inevitable that Inuyashiki will realize he’s the only one who can stop him. Even so, the buildup to that confrontation feels quite unhurried. When the final showdown does roll around, it delivers the requisite amount of thrilling mayhem, topped with dollops of sentimentality expected in mainstream Japanese films. While the action design and visual effects don’t compare to Hollywood superhero movies, they’re solid by local standards. The peppy score and sound mix offer an appropriate level of thrill without turning bombastic.