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As The Gods Will
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by Jay Seaver

"Could use just a bit more method to its often-excellent madness."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's honesty in the title of "As the Gods Will", although sheer caprice is not necessarily the best way to build a movie. Having Takashi Miike at the helm with a bit of a CGI budget doesn't hurt - if nothing else, it will boost the "well, never seen THAT in a movie before" COUNT - but after a while you'd really better enjoy absurd and arbitrary murder rooms for their own sake, because the movie doesn't have a whole lot else.

We're thrown into the first right away, a lethal game of "red light/green light" controlled by a living daruma dolll at the front of a high school classroom, with friends Takahata (Sota Fukushi) and Sakate (Shota Sometani) apparently the most level-headed and therefore least likely to be exploded by the doll's death beams. That bloodbath leads to another, as the survivors of the other homerooms - including school bully Takeru Amaya (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and Takahata's longtime crush Ichika Akimoto (Hirona Yamazaki) - are thrown together with folks from other schools, such as former classmate Shoko Takase (Mio Yuki) in a sort of lethal tournament run by giant cubes floating over almost every city on the planet.

Say what you want about the lack of any sort of thematic coherence to this movie - and, trust me, I will a couple paragraphs from now - but there's little denying that at least the first two legs of it are a demented sort of work of art. To a certain extent, killing a bunch of teenagers is not necessarily an audacious move in Japanese cinema these days (or at least, not the sort of movies that Miike makes or which make it to North American genre festivals), but Miike plays it as physical comedy with precisely honed timing while also rapidly shifting gears into a tense action sequence or a look of horror as the camera pans over a ton of headless bodies and marbles, and on top of that, he's also flashing back to the kids arriving at school to fill in their characterization a bit. The giant "beckoning cat" sequence that follows it is similarly brilliant, pushing the absurdity even further while showing that just because an action bit is ridiculous does not mean it can't be well-staged. As much as Miike will often be praised for the outrageous, over-the-top content of his movies or how he can actually stage one heck of an action scene, it's somewhat rare to note both of these skill sets in play at once, feeding each other.

The mostly-young cast is nice; Sota Fukushi and Shota Sometani make a nice team, especially as the latter, playing the bespectacled, somewhat nerdier Sakate actually gets to come off as more confident, at least initially. Hirona Yamazaki does a really charming girl next door while Mio Yuki plays a counterpart who has grown more assured in her popularity while still getting across how terrified she is in this situation. Ryunosuke Kamiki winds up a somewhat weak link; he just seems too baby-faced to be the school's bully, and doesn't exactly carry himself right for most of the movie. The voice actors for the various CGI and stop-motion creatures do well, though.

My big question, though, is what all this mayhem is leading to. One test requires teamwork, another is winner-take-all, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason to which will be which, and the violence gets a bit wearing - no matter how good Miike may be at executing it on-screen, the structure (derived from the original manga, no doubt) where new characters are regularly being introduced and then wiped out can only last so long before the audience is dividing newcomers between being actually important and cannon fodder right away and becoming numb. Eventually, it plays as a sort of metaphor for Takahata figuring life out, but there's enough larger-scale madness going on that it can't just be that.

The scale of the movie is what makes frequently makes it a gas to watch; the various "levels" of this game are garish in conception and execution, with the effects not only pretty spiffy - it's probably well past time to stop thinking of Miike as a low-budget whiz whose big studio films are a weird novelty - but shift in style in neat ways, so that even as the characters are moving through more digitally constructed environs, it never gets that bland, plastic-y feel effects-driven fantasies often get. The movie is curiously front-loaded in that the two best action bits are toward the beginning and things seem to get less exciting as it goes on, with the final "kick the can" sequence going on forever with arcane, distancing rules compared to how the movie started.

Maybe I'm just growing out of this sort of "death game" movie, no longer being a young man who sees the world full of traps and situations rigged against me and as such more inclined to ask just how the whole thing works as a whole. Kicking off with a couple of inspired action sequences certainly freshens up what is basically "Cube" in new clothing, but "As the Gods Will" could use a bit more to get it to the finish line.

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originally posted: 07/21/16 01:19:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Takashi Miike

Written by
  Hiroyuki Yatsu

  Ryunosuke Kamiki
  Mio Yuki
  Sta Fukushi
  Hirona Yamazaki
  Shota Sometani
  Nao Omori

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