Movies, Reviews

Shinsuke Sato’s I Am A Hero Takes an Existential Stance on Zombification

I Am a Hero film poster - Toho 2016I Am a Hero

Director: Sato Shinsuke
Original screenplay: Kengo Hanazawa (manga) and Akiko Nogi (screenplay)
North American voice cast: Yo Oizumi, Masami Nagasawa, Kasumi Arimura
North American premiere: March 13, 2016 (United States); June 16, 2017 (Canada)

I feel pretty confident in saying that I probably wouldn’t last very long in the zombie apocalypse. For one, I don’t fancy having to fight my way through hordes of the undead, fast or slow. That hasn’t stopped me from loving zombie movies or watching them and making up plans in my head about how I’d survive whatever situations the characters found themselves in.

I Am A Hero plays on that speculation–what would we do if a zombie outbreak happened in our hometown? Who would we be in this strange new world, and what could we become? For Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), the answers are more complicated than he’d like them to be. Hideo is a quiet unassuming man, devoted to his work as a manga artist in a small studio, the complete opposite of what his name (“hero”) means. He’s more likely to run from a fight than to defend himself, and it’s this particular lack of heroics that the film explores in two rollicking hours. Can Hideo remain himself–cowardly, painfully shy, awkward–in a world where survival requires spilling blood?

When the zombie apocalypse happens, it’s almost like a series of music boxes, their eerie melodies surrounding Hideo at different pitches before they expose the horrors within. First his estranged girlfriend, then his neighbours, co-workers, until everyone around him has succumbed to ZQN, a mysterious virus that rampages through the country. Oizumi plays up Hideo’s disbelief just a smidgen more than his terror, a decision that reflects the kind of person Hideo is. He doesn’t commit, he doesn’t take strong stances on anything, and he is deeply afraid of making any decisions. Yo Oizumi is fantastic at physical comedy, his reflexes and expressive face lending themselves well to Hideo’s predicament.

It’s a predicament that was stretched out for 20 volumes in the original manga, but screenwriter Akiko Nogi condenses the core conflicts of the story beautifully. While manga!Hideo ends up in a love triangle with two women on Mount Fuji, film!Hideo is just trying to get away from all of the zombies trying to eat him.

Yo Oizumi, Kasumi Arimura - I Am a Hero - Toho 2016

When Hideo meets high school student Hiromi Hayakari (a rather humdrum Kasumi Arimura), he doesn’t lust after her–he’s just confused and petrified of the fact that she may have been bitten by a zombie. Masami Nagasawa cuts an imposing figure as Yabu Ota, a former nurse-turned-fighter/survivor, and her confident presence balances Hideo’s skittering eyes. Here, the characters have space to breathe and even charm you, something you might not necessarily expect from a horror film. You care about this ragtag team, so you care about where they end up.

The Japan we see in I Am a Hero is mostly quiet, but for the explosion of zombies onto cities and small towns alike. Director Sato Shinsuke’s hand is clear in those explosions of limbs and blood spatters across the ground–having seen his previous film duology Gantz, I recognized some subtle similarities in how the zombies’ movements were choreographed and presented on the screen. There are sprinkles of dark comedy throughout the film that seem to wink at the audience, even as it startles them. Uncanny valley? It’s an uncanny countryside that Hideo travels through, with the same sense of uneasy dread that Gantz conjured up in me on my first viewing.

Masami Nagasawa and Kasumi Arimura - I Am a Hero - Toho 2016

By the end of the film, Hideo’s character arc leaves the viewer with a bombastic close, a final battle that had me laughing a little nervously in my seat. Is Hideo a hero by the end? Maybe, maybe not. The film asks what the word means to us, but stops short of giving us time to really think about it, since after all, zombies are coming. But both those who might be looking for a great double feature with Train to Busan, or who are unsure about the genre in general, will find much to chew on (pun intended) in I Am A Hero.

I Am a Hero will be screened at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on June 16, 2017.