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I Am a Hero
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by Jay Seaver

"A decent bit of zombie action that could have been even more."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I kind of expected the title if this to be a bit more ironic, both from what I've heard of the manga and the way the opening act played; my increasing unease with zombies and the rules that go with them becoming mainstream certainly had me hoping that the filmmakers would be doing something subversive. They don't, but the pretty much standard but well-done zombie action at least makes it one of the bigger and better takes on the material.

Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi) has not exactly been preparing for the zombie apocalypse, but he's probably more ready than most in Japan, owning a licensed shotgun and carrying around some resentment in his job as an art assistant to manga artist Koroi Nakada (Jin Katagiri), having also been awarded a "best newcomer" prize 15 years ago. Kicked out by girlfriend Tekko (Nana Katase) he's thus got his weapon with him as the virus spreads, eventually winding up in a cab with schoolgirl HIromi Hayakari (Kasumi Arimura). They make it out of the city to an outlet mall where nurse Yabu (Masami Nagasawa) seems to take a shine to him, while the charismatic young leader of the group taking shelter there, Iura (Hisashi Yoshizawa) thinks they may be helpful, but they've got a secret - Hiromi has been bitten, though she has apparently contracted a mild strain of the virus.

Not having read Kengo Hanazawa's original manga, I can't speak to whether the title was meant to be something Suzuki grows into or hopefully grows out of, and the script by Akiko Nogi isn't terribly definitive on this point, either. It's a question that gets down to what a film in this genre is about - is Suzuki justified in hating the world and seeing those within as enemies, or is he going to be able to tap into a buried humanity in the face of the pure misanthropy of a zombie horde? A filmmaker can have most of the same things happen but make two very different movies depending on how they answer that question, although most of the time they take the same bits from column A and B, and have since the first time George Romero put a bunch of frightened people in the same cottage. I Am a Hero is a little more flagrant about trying to have it both ways, and that limits its ceiling: It can be a well-made genre film, but not the type where something buried within it gets the viewer thinking.

It is, at least, a very well-mounted zombie movie. Shinsuke Sato has spent the past few years adapting a number of Japan's most popular manga serials into slick, export-quality live-action features, and he keeps it up here. There are a couple of terrific set pieces, with an initial attack on Suzuki that plays genuinely creepy and a fantastic cab sequence highlights of the first half before things calm down for a little while so that they can introduce the cast at the outlet mall and build up to the finale. That part of the film is admittedly the sort of action that fans of the genre have seen a lot, but it's done in slick, bloody fashion. It's actually much gorier than is typical for this sort of manga adaptation (as the director pointed out in the festival Q&A, most movies of this scale in Japan are financed by broadcast TV networks and seldom go for the hard R).

One does wonder, a bit, what Yo Oizumi could have done with a script that was a bit less by-the-numbers. He's probably at his most compelling in the early scenes when Suzuki is a loser who seethes with envy, his anger a counterpoint to the broader (but sometimes still barbed) ways that the rest of the cast is playing things. He's fine as Suzuki settles into becoming more of a conventional protagonist, surrounded by a decent cast - Kasumi Arimura tends to find the right blend of defiance and fright even as she's more and more reduced to pantomime as Hiromi, Hisashi Yoshizawa and Yoshinori Okada handle the two main variations on "guys who take charge in a zombie apocalypse" well enough, and Ji Katagiri is enjoyably sleazy as the successful artist willing to exploit others' work - but none of these characters really become folks where their being eaten or not is much of a concern beyond general principle.

This is definitely a case where I can't help but think of what "I Am a Hero" could have been and don't like how it plays into a lot of the toxic fantasies that often go with zombie movies (the world ends and not only is the hero's gun hobby suddenly useful and necessary, but he winds up with a younger, nicer girlfriend and a teenage cutie admiring him unconditionally) - those can use some shredding. Just looking at the movie Sato made, it's thrilling, capable fast-zombie material, certainly doing well by its genre, and it's a bit unfair to ask for it to be more because of first impressions.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30122&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/21/18 06:40:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinsuke Sato

Written by
  Akiko Nogi

Cast
  Yo Oizumi
  Kasumi Arimura
  Masami Nagasawa



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