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Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island
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by Jay Seaver

"Opens with a fine splat, and never slips to bloodless."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's tough not to get just a little excited during the opening sequence of "Higanjima", because it makes a thoroughly enjoyable statement: That putting a stake through a vampire's heart is for people who aren't truly committed to getting the job done. No, if you truly want to be rid of a vampire, you do what Atsushi (Dai Watanabe) does after chasing a couple down: Back them against a wall and drive a battering ram into their face until their head explodes like... Well, a head that's just had a battering ram smashed into it. That's a badass opening, although it's also a set-up for the inverse ninja rule: Fighting two vampires turns out to be cooler than fighting an island full of vampires.

Before heading back to the island, though, we meet Akira (Hideo Ishiguro). He's Atsushi's younger and less-respected brother, and initially he and his friend Pon are just running from conventional high-school bullies. As he runs, we meet his other buddies: Chemistry whiz Nishiyama, archery-club member Yuki (Miori Takimoto), hefty Kato, and friendly delinquent Ken (Tomohisa Yuge). He's pulled aside by Rei (Asami Mizukawa), who tells him that Atsushi, missing for two years, is alive! Akira and his friends find out about the vampires when they follow her, and agree to come to her island - but does she mean to have them help Atsushi defeat master vampire Miyabi (Koji Yamamoto), or is she just helping him replenish the island's food supply?

I'm not sure how long the manga that Higanjima is based upon ran, but the movie bears some of the marks of being adapted from one that ran a while: It's simultaneously too big and too small, filled with more characters and backstory than it has a chance to really elaborate on, managing to cause a bit of fatigue while also seeming a bit shallow at points. You can tell which characters have giant targets on their backs by how much development they're given, and even the major characters' subplots are elaborated sketchily enough that something apparently meant to be important seems a bit like a non-sequitur in the end. Those long serials can also tolerate a little repetition over years; having two of Akira's friends get taken and need rescuing at different times sticks out in a movie just over two hours long.

Also, while I suppose that one point of view would give screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi and director Kim Tae-gyun credit for not going the obvious route, when three of the first things they show the audience are that (1) vampires are best dispatched via massive head trauma, (2) one character can whip up explosives in a high-school chemistry lab, and (3) another character has some skills with the bow & arrow, the audience expects and deserves to see at least one vampire get taken out via explosive-tipped arrow to the eye socket. It's bad enough that the supporting characters are given little more than a basic personality and a weapon of choice to start with, but they don't even really get to use those; they wind up being used as somewhat interchangeable hostages and potential cannon fodder. Similarly, it's not right to flash a mad-scientist vampire wearing some sort of uniform, as well as leg irons so that he can't leave his lab, without spending a little more time on what his deal is.

So, the filmmakers maybe bite off a little more than they can chew. They do manage to get a number of things right, especially with their young cast. They're a distinct-looking bunch who manage to carve out their own personalities for potentially generic characters. Hideo Ishiguro goes overboard in some of his scenes (the kind of screaming that works in manga and anime can be too much in live action), but he's a likable hero who manages to make an impression as both capable and easily underestimated, both in how he talks and how he fights.

The action is also pretty darn good. That opening scene is one of the best, larger-than-life with plenty of blood spattering all over the place, and another set back in the city where the kids discover just how potentially overmatched they are is intense all the way up to its gruesome finale. Kim has a full bag of tricks to use as the film heads to its conclusion, including fights against armies, CGI monsters large and small, and some rather nicely choreographed swordfighting; Ishiguro and Watanabe (or at least their doubles) help Kim sell the swordplay very well.

"Higanjima" doesn't end as strong as it starts; it opens with the promise of a vampire action movie that's fresh and energetic, and winds up delivering one that is likely a faithful (if compressed) adaptation of its source material. It delivers a good dollop of bloody action, although the best is in the first act.

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originally posted: 07/10/10 03:24:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 22-Jan-2013



Directed by
  Tae-Kyun Kim

Written by
  Tetsuya Oishi

  Koji Yamamoto
  Hideo Ishiguro
  Dai Watanabe
  Asami Mizukawa

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