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Year: 2012
Country:
Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Ishii Gakuryu (Ishii Sogo)
Adaptation from:
an absurd play of the same title by Maeda Shirō (前田司郎)
Screenplay: Maeda Shirō, Ishii Gakuryu
Cinematography: Matsumoto Yoshiyuki
Cast: Sometani Shota and others (see below)
Runtime: 113 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Ikiteru.jp (in Japanese)

Seen at the pre-DVD release preview screening organised by the Asian Movies Meetup Group at the Roxy Bar & Screen in London. Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka is next screening, in London, as part of the Terracotta Touring Programme on October 9, 2012. DVD release (UK) via Third Window Films will follow on October 22, 2012.

Adam Torel, the managing director of UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films, introduced Ishii Gakuryu’s latest work with the words that Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka sharply divides its viewers: they either love or hate the film. This may generally be so, but I found myself somewhere in between these two camps – I like the film, but I certainly don’t love it.

The premise in itself I adore: We find ourselves on the sprawling campus of Jinsai Medical University, when a report comes in of a train crash nearby only to be suddenly and inexplicably followed by people on campus dropping dead like flies. Individuals begin to cough and are soon gasping for air and contorting their bodies in pain, most dying within minutes. Death strikes randomly and whatever might have caused it, remains a mystery, even when the film is long over.

Absurdities: Sir Ian McKellen and Roger Rees in Sean Mathias’s 2010 Waiting for Godot production in London (video clip). Theatre (absurd or not) doesn’t get better than that.

It is a story that makes, of course, no sense in our world of logic, of explanations and detailed reasoning – but that’s the absurd for you. For that is where we are: in the realm of the absurd, more precisely the tradition of Le Théâtre de l’Absurde (The Theatre of the Absurd), a style of theatre that developed in the late 1940s, early 1950s in France and eschewed acts of logic, trapping characters in situations that are simply ridiculous to the point of being unbelievable when interpreted by the normal (i.e. logical) laws of the world. A famous – perhaps the most famous – example is Irish Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot (original in French, translated by Beckett himself into English as Waiting for Godot), which was first performed in Paris in January 1953. In the tragicomedy two vagrants, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the titular Godot, who may never show up, indeed, he may or may not exist and/or be merely symbolic. As in other absurd plays, traditional plot and character development are lacking and definite interpretations are difficult to make, illustrating what is at the heart of the absurd:

Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose…. Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless. (Eugène Ionesco qtd. in Esslin, p. 23)

Beyond Beckett, playwrights with such productions include the just quoted Ionesco (La Cantatrice Chauve/The Bald Soprano), Jean Genet (Les Bonnes/The Maids), Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Der Besuch der alten Dame/The Visit) and Edward Albee (Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) – and, decades later, Maeda Shirō, whose award-winning Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka from 2007 was the starting point for Ishii’s film.

I am not familiar with Maeda’s original, but Ishii’s rendition retains the feel of a play: it is minimalist in terms of setting as well as heavy on dialogue. We essentially remain at the university campus for the few hours (on the screen and in realtime) that pass as the story unfolds. Events outside this realm are reported only through phone calls or recalled in conversations. Talk there is plenty: early on, for example, we observe several students conversing about urban myths, only to be joined by some more friends and further continuing the discussion, with some deviations, for probably some good 10 minutes. It may be less than that, but it certainly feels like a never-ending exchange of words: the group talks in circles and spouts details, which are, of course, largely pointless (typical for the absurd). As Ishii also opts to film – with the exception of a few panelled scenes – in a natural manner (no special effects, no particularly striking cinematography), it is only the sound score consisting of jarring musical insertions and the overall structuring that remind us that this is not taking place on a stage.

Uh oh. Someone’s randomly succumbing to death.

In terms of the latter, Ishii uses a kind of structure that would have probably been impossible in a play: with 18 individuals all playing a role there is a constant overlapping and cutting back and forth between scenes involving different people.1 In the opening shot there is Miki (Tanaka Konatsu), a terminally ill patient at the university hospital. She is attended to by her doctor Maki (Aoki Eri), who is trailed by the love-struck but socially awkward male colleague Dr. Naitoyu (Serizawa Tateto) as well as sought out by her stepbrother Koyuichi (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), who also has feelings for her. Elsewhere on the campus grounds a trio – Enari (Tajima Yumika), Andore (Fudauchi Kota) and Eiko (Ikenaga Ami) – practices a song and dance for the wedding of classmates, while the engaged couple, Ryoko (Takanashi Rin) and Katsufumi (Iida Asato), themselves are meeting with the guy’s unfortunately pregnant mistress Kaori (Shiraishi Hakka), with Keisuke (Sometani Shota), a young waiter, serving them drinks like black sesame soy lattes. Nana (Takahashi Mai) hasn’t been invited to the nuptials but spots Shoji (Hasome Tatsuya), a self-admiring idol that recently enrolled at the institution, as she meets with her friends Matsuchi (Hasebe Keisuke) and Katsuo (Morooka Hiroaki), the two boys later running into an ichthyophile guy appropriately called Dr. Fish (Tsuda Shojiro) and his friend Yama (Murakami Jun) that are wandering about campus after witnessing the aforementioned train accident. Last but not least, there is also Katsuo’s mother (Chizuko Sugiura), who is worried that she has been unable to reach her son.

Ishii offers a brief glimpse into each and everyone’s life and death – for die they all do with the exception of one (no spoilers). Surprisingly, the first death doesn’t occur until about half an hour into the story, which is where one of the film’s problems lies: the build-up to the deaths is just a bit too long, indeed, I think Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka could have actually jumped right into dying and generally done with some tighter editing. Although plenty of absurdity can and is derived through recurring narrative elements, the seventeen deaths – as much as each character deserves his/her glorified final moments – feel a bit too stretched out, in part because most seem to expire in a rather similar fashion. With a mixed cast of a few veteran actors, some absolute newbies and several in-betweeners, that lack of distinction in the deaths may have resulted from that – perhaps.

Ensemble cast: Who makes it out alive?

Of the veterans, Sometani Shota has one of the more stand-out roles, but is given no real chance to shine. With Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka first and foremost being an ensemble piece (indeed, this is how the story came to be: as a theatrical exercise at a workshop run by Maeda), this makes sense, yet as someone who has seen Sometani excel in other films (most recently in Sono Sion’s powerful 「ヒミズ」/Himizu/Himizu2011), I couldn’t help but wish for more substantial scenes that would have allowed him to show what he is capable of. That said, in terms of his career, this unusual project however is only commendable: Sometani, you must remember, is barely 20-years old yet his choices in film roles is impressively diverse, often rather mature as well as intriguing, highlighting a noteworthy willingness to take risks.

With its purposefully overacted deaths and utterly pointless dialogues revealing inane as well as inappropriate concerns of individuals in the grave moment of death, Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka delivers some wonderful scenes of subtle, dark humour, but isn’t quite polished as a whole, at least not in the form of a film. On the stage it might have perfectly worked as such, in the cinema, with its different material possibilities and viewer expectations, this production could have gone a little further, e.g. by going to extremes with the random bits of music and screen panelling – or even more of those planes-falling-out-of-the-sky in its culmination. Still, if you you are not adverse to the absurd, it’s worth watching.

Overall Verdict: Although Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka is not a completely successful film adaptation of a highly theatrical story, it delivers some scenes of wonderfully dark humour as a whole lot of people die, one after the other, for no apparent reason at all. Appreciation of the absurd however is a must.

Rating: 7.5/10

Footnotes:

1I presume that the play featured the same number of characters but probably a lot less of the constant back and forth between different individuals and their scenes.

Bibliography:

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Bonus Bits:

  • I am, of course, offering no explanation of what the story might mean – that would not serve the absurd. If you are left pulling your hair out after watching, some other reviews do comment on this: easternkicks, japancinema, isugoi (linking both the positive and negative reviews here).
  • Maeda’s 2006 play won the Kishida Kunio Award in 2008. It has a sequel entitled 「生きてるものか」 (Ikiteru Mono Ka/Are We Alive?), which is the story in reverse as the dead students come back to life – the scenes are played backwards. If you have a hard time imagining this, there are some film clips of performances of both Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka (starting at 7:23 min) and Ikiteru Mono Ka (starting at 9:33 min) from 2009 on YouTube. Would be good fun to see these in the theatre indeed! (I do wonder why the sequel wasn’t called Isn’t Anyone Dead?)
  • Interesting interview with Maeda, who sometimes also acts in his plays.
  • As already mentioned, the film will be released on DVD by Third Window Films on October 22, 2012.
  • Terracotta Touring Festival also showed Ikiteru Mono Wa Inai No Ka in Bristol (Sept 15 at the Watershed) and Manchester (25 Sept 2012 at the Cornerhouse), with another screening for London still coming up on 9 October 2012 at Mile End Genesis.
  • Just in case you ever need a synopsis for Waiting for Godot (or feel like procrastinating for a few minutes), watch this awesome video.

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