Isn't Anyone Alive?

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/08/12 11:20:23

"Nice ensemble, but the characters may outlast the audience."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is, I suppose, unfair to judge this picture for not being conventional enough; it's meant to be unusual and relatively plot-free. The question is, if you strip the basic building block of story away, what's left? "Isn't Anyone Alive?" becomes an end-of-the-world movie whose detachment isn't shocking or philosophical or even that interesting, despite a strong start.

The entire movie takes place on a college campus and the research hospital attached to it, where we meet several small groups: Pregnant student Kaori (Hakka Shiraishi) and her baby's father Katsufumi (Asato Iida) are meeting his fiancée Ryoko (Rin Takanashi) in a café to figure out what to do. Nana (Mai Takahashi) is killing time with friends Andre (Kota Fudauchi), Enari (Yumika Tajima), and Eiko (Ami Ikenaga) before they go to rehearse a song & dance for Ryoko's wedding; she's joined by "Match" (Keisuke Hasebe) and Katsuo (Hiroaki Morooka), fellow members of the Urban Myth Club. Koyuichi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is looking for his half-sister Maki (Eri Aoki), an orderly at the hospital. There's more, but after a report of a mysterious incident at the subway station, people start dropping dead.

In another movie, the presence of clever students who know a great deal about urban legends and a research hospital might point to the source of the outbreak and a way to stop it, but let's be very clear: Isn't Anyone Alive? is not that movie. Director Gakuryu "Sogo" Ishii and co-writer Shiro Maeda (who wrote the original play) make sure to raise the possibility and shoot it down early, re-iterating that this is not how things are going to go every time it looks like some sort of plot might develop. The idea, perhaps, is to highlight how cosmically unimportant human concerns are - the characters' dramas and concerns are snuffed out, and what of it?

Well, the audience gets attached to these characters, for one thing. The ensemble, many of them young newcomers, does a fantastic job at times of building a cast of characters who grab and hold the audience's interest despite not necessarily being particularly unusual or extraordinary. Mai Takahashi, for instance, quickly makes quick-talking Nana sharp and somewhat abrasive without making her unfriendly, quickly establishing that Match is a friend she'd sort of like to be more without her or Keisuke Hasebe playing it up or giving the audience obvious signals. Shota Sometani does a nice job of stepping into the spotlight as the waiter on the edges of the segment with Kaori, Ryoko, and Katsufumi. But, really, out of a dozen and a half major roles, there aren't really many weak links at all.

And it's not just the cast. "Experimental films" like Isn't Anyone Alive? can often feel quite rough, and while much of what Ishii does is stripped-down, it never feels amateurish (as is to be expected; Sogo Ishii has a long and fine track record). There's a crisp look to Yoshiyuki Matsumoto's cinematography, for instance; it looks digital, but makes good use of that clarity, and when some effects come into play, they fit in well. The music is unusual and good in all the right ways.

Ishii and company do such a nice job on getting things started that when the first death happens out of nowhere, it's unusually shocking and horrifying; the average genre filmmaker would envy the gut-punch they manage. By the end, though, a lot of the more interesting characters have been eliminated, and the deaths become perfunctory jokes that don't work, and seldom even good black comedy. It's just more, with the actors having to work much harder to get anything close to the same reaction.

Maybe that's the conceptual point, showing how audiences can go from empathy to disinterest in the span of two hours, but it gets tiresome. "Isn't Anyone Alive?" evolves from impressive character work to exercise in desensitization, and likely loses a fair amount of the audience along the way.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.