George Iida’s “Dragon Head” opens with high school student Teru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) waking up inside a bullet train. Teru is the sole survivor of a terrible train accident, and all of his classmates are dead. If that wasn’t bad enough, the tunnel they were going through has collapsed, leaving Teru trapped. Teru quickly locates two other survivors in the adjacent car — Nubuo and Ako (Sayaka Kanda). Unfortunately Nubuo has lost his faculties and before you can say, “Oh Dear, it looks a lot like ‘Lord of the Flies’”, Nubuo has painted his face with lipstick and has fashioned himself a spear.
Eventually Teru and Ako, sans Nubuo, manages to crawl their way out of the tunnel using a drainage system. What they discover outside is even worst — the world has been reduced to ash, and civilization has fallen to a disaster of world-shattering proportions. The duo does their best to survive, trekking back toward Tokyo, their hometown, while encountering a sea of destruction and a host of wacky and dangerous characters along the way.
One thing that annoys about “Dragon Head” is its insistence that high school teens are incapable of acting with some modicum of competence in the aftermath of a disaster. The hero spends the first 10 minutes of the movie literally falling down. Nobuo turns psychotic and beats his injured teacher to death, then proceeds to stomp on the dead bodies of the students that used to bully him. Ako has the mentality of a 5-year old — that is, she is completely useless. Granted, they’ve just been through a horrible tragedy, but does it really make sense that 16 or 17-year olds would completely de-evolve into such sad states?
With a two hour running time to play with, co-writer/director George Iida (“Another Heaven”) elects to spend the first 40 minutes on the struggle between semi-intelligent Teru, psycho Nubuo, and hapless Ako inside the tunnel. The first 20 minutes of this seems necessary, as it helps to establish the hopelessness of the situation, but the next 20 minutes seems to drag, keeping the movie away from its real story — that is, the survival on the world outside. In any case, Nubuo is simply not realized enough, and his transformation from bullied nerd to killer isn’t very convincing.
By the time Ako and Teru makes it to the outside world, things look up for the movie — although not for our leads. The whole thing takes on a surreal vibe, as the two encounters a series of survivors more baffling and dangerous that the previous. In one town, they almost lose their heads to a group of survivors who have collectively decided to pretend the disaster never happened. They also meet two soldiers, one of whom quickly develops an eye for Ako. Which leads me to this conclusion: Has there ever been an End of the World movie where soldiers didn’t prove to be sadistic and insane?
Like most Japanese movies, you can expect some measure of kookiness involved, and “Dragon Head” is no exception. As it were, the Japanese are very peculiar about injecting oddball moments into their movies, such as the presence of two boys whose father has surgically removed the part of their brain that feels fear. There’s the odious villain who giggles or cackles a lot because, well, that’s his archetype. Lead Teru has that ineffectual quality that prevents him from achieving true hero status. Also, Ako wears her schoolgirl uniform throughout the entire movie for some odd reason. You would think a short skirt and pumps wouldn’t be very useful during, you know, a trek through an apocalyptic landscape.
The thing about “Dragon Head’s” two leads is that they’re nitwits, and their astonishing continued survival is due more to blind luck. I’ve never encountered two people with less survival instincts than these two, although the survivors of “28 Days Later” do come close. Teru breaks down in tears at any given opportunity, and Ako is, well, pretty much useless throughout. Their survival is not only left to chance, but rather to Movie Chance — i.e. they survive each subsequent bizarre circumstance because the movie needs them to. In the real world, these two dummies would never have made it out of the tunnel.
In any case, “Dragon Head” has enough merits to recommend viewing. The sea of carnage in the aftermath of the disaster is impressive, with giant hulks of cities and whole towns reduced to skeletal ashes of their former selves. Iida, no stranger to special effects, gives “Dragon Head” enough visual flair to make it a worthwhile endeavor. While the special effects are nothing new (American Meteorites Attack movies have been doing this for a while now) the ambitious apocalyptic landscape achieved here is certainly something to behold, especially since most of it is actual destruction.
While it does tend to meander too much, and the ending is not what I would call satisfying, “Dragon Head” has enough redeemable moments to make it good. And if you are still wondering what caused the great apocalypse, I have one word for you: Pompeii.
George Iida (director) / George Iida, Masaru Nakamira, Hiroshi Saito (screenplay)
CAST: Sayaka Kanda …. Ako
Satoshi Tsumabuki …. Teru