(Screened at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival)
“Greatful Dead” is an oddly spelled title for an odd, though very entertaining piece of cinematic madness. Written and directed by Eiji Uchida (“Sisterhood”, “The Last Days of the World”), the film is a far-out mix of dark comedy, gore, social commentary and loneliness, with upcoming actress Kumi Takiuchi (“The Ravine of Goodbye”) in the lead as a young woman whose initially harmless people-watching turns nasty. Off-kilter in a fashion reminiscent of Sono Sion, the film has considerable cult appeal, and is currently going down well with fans at a variety of international festivals, having played at Fantastic Fest and Raindance in London.
Kumi Takiuchi plays Nami, the film opening with her as a young girl, struggling to get attention from her mother, who’s sadly obsessed with trying to raise money for poverty-stricken children overseas. After she leaves, her father falls into depression, ruled over by his mysterious new mistress Akko-chan, and her sister moves out to live with her boyfriend, leaving Nami all alone, the Lucky Shopping television network her only friend. The film skips forward to find her now aged 20, living a carefree lifestyle thanks to a considerable sum of money left in her father’s will. Nami now spends most of her time tracking and observing what she calls ‘solitarians’, lonely people prone to eccentric behaviour. In particular, she has her eye on Mr. Shiomi (famous veteran actor and personality Takashi Sasano, also recently in “Departures”), a grumpy elderly former entertainer, estranged from his family and angry at the world in general. Nami enjoys watching his miserable existence from afar, until one day Christian missionary Su Yong (Korean actress Kkobbi Kim, “Breathless”) shows up, determined to bring a little sunshine back into the old man’s life.
There’s no two ways about it: “Greatful Dead” is an unhinged film. Eiji Uchida starts things off in relatively straightforward fashion, the opening stages playing out like a fairly typical quirky Japanese comedy, Nami coming across as a likeable, harmless eccentric voyeur. Things slowly but surely head in a darker direction, as it becomes clear that she takes a real pleasure from seeing her ‘solitarians’ living in misery and isolation, before diving off the deep end into full-on insanity. Without wishing to spoil anything, the film does go to some very dark and twisted places, enough to likely make it shocking viewing for the average unsuspecting audience member, not least given the emerging line in perverse sexuality, leading to some very squirm-worthy scenes later on. The film also packs in the gore and sadism, with plenty of torture and gruesome blood-letting, and though a healthy sense of the absurd ensures that it never gets too unpleasant, it does get pretty extreme. With Eiji keeping Nami at the centre of the film as a kind of bizarre anti-heroine, there’s an amoral feel to the proceedings which keeps the viewer very much off-balance, and this only adds to the ever-escalating lunacy.
Of course, it’s easy enough to throw extreme wackiness at the screen without rhyme or reason, and thankfully here there’s a definite method to the madness. Though crazy, the film has a surprising amount of heart, and comes across as a mix of the insane and tragically innocent, focusing on the unloved and lonely and on people being ignored and marginalised by society, in particular the young and the elderly. With religion, forgiveness and childhood trauma being thrown into the mix, the film does have the feel of Sono Sion-lite, especially given the use of classical music, though Eiji definitely carves out his own niche. Though never preachy, the film clearly was intended at least in part as social commentary and criticism, and succeeds very well in this, mainly since it seems to be coming from the point of view of someone who cares, giving it an oddly compassionate air.
Ultimately, the film really does belong to Kumi Takiuchi, who is absolutely superb in the lead role, with a brave performance that stops just shy of going too over the top, stealing every single scene she appears in. Though undeniably monstrous, Nami is an utterly captivating protagonist, and despite her excesses remains sympathetic to the end, even managing to swerve things into an emotionally moving climax that genuinely comes out of leftfield. Takashi Sasano is similarly excellent, and the bond of enmity which develops between them is both fun and compelling to watch.
Though it might not be for everyone, “Greatful Dead” really is a massively entertaining film, and one of the few to marry extreme content with dark comedy and a social conscience. Eiji Uchida shows himself to be a writer and director of considerable skill and creativity, and hopefully it’s a film which will find a wider cult audience beyond the festival circuit.
Eiji Uchida (director) / Etsuo Hiratani, Eiji Uchida (screenplay)
CAST: Kkobbi Kim