January slides away and February is almost upon us but the movies still keep gettin’ watched here at your Favorite Catgirl’s place as winter winds down. So…..how about a Japanese Horror film this time out? For that, I’ve got “Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island” fresh from it’s Region 2 UK release by Manga Films.
Our synopsis for it goes like this: “Two years after his older brother, Atsushi, goes missing under mysterious circumstances, Akira meets a beautiful woman, Rei, who is in possession of Atsushi’s ID card and claims he is still alive and can be found on the remote, uncharted Japanese island of Higanjima. Desperate to see his brother once again, Akira talks several of his friends into joining him on a trip to the island in search of Atsushi.
Arriving the friends are shocked to learn that they have been lured there as fodder for the island’s inhabitants, a race of extremely bloodthirsty vampires ruled by their leader, Miyabi. As the vampires descend upon their newly arrived prey, Akira makes a startling discovery – Atsushi really is alive and on the island, having devoted himself to becoming a vampire hunter intent on slaying Miyabi’s legions of the undead. Finally reunited, the two brothers and their friends join forces with two simple goals in mind – rid Higanjima of its Vampire population and find a way to escape from the island without dying (or worse being reborn as the living dead) in the process!”
Sounds like Neko’s cup of tea alright…. and I’m thinking it’ll have one of those simple Anime inspired plots that Carolyn won’t have trouble following either. Hopefully it’ll be a nice lil’ creepy actioner with sufficient thrills and chills to keep the winter blues at bay on a cold movie night here at the apartment. Wanna know if you’d like it too? Then you know what you gotta do, right? “Read On”, Gentle Visitor and find out all the exciting details you need to know!!
Apparently this one is based on a fairly popular Manga in Japan, although your Favorite Catgirl has to plead ignorant of the particulars of that incarnation. I’m going in cold on this one… and that’s not always a good thing with one of these adaptions. Oftentimes the audience for them is assumed to have much of the background of the story firmly in mind and if you don’t, watching one can leave you going, “Huh? What the heck??” quite a bit. Worse… they often leave much of the story out… as the Manga or Anime will have needlessly complex multiple plot threads that just don’t work when all you’ve got is an hour or two to tell the story in. Sound complicated? It is… and that’s why doing one of these types of movies can be tricky. Stray too far from the source material and you risk losing whatever was so special about the story in the first place, as well as pissing off the fans… stick too rigidly to the original and you risk alienating an audience ignorant of that source.
Watching this one as an outsider, I wasn’t loaded down with any expectations based on a previous exposure to the story, but I can say that there were times I did wish I knew just what had been left in and what had been taken out of this tale. It starts off promisingly enough… a dark night… a panicked, bloody man fleeing for his life through a forest littered with the most beautiful… and decidedly creepy.. blood red flowers one might ever wish to see. He finally finds a deserted old barn and once inside, comes under attack by the ravenous vampiric villagers of Higanjima. He’s toast…. right? Ha!! Not when there’s a deadly ninja-like vampire hunter wielding a big ol’ log to swoop in and kill those blood drinking monsters just at the last moment. Unfortunately… our poor victim’s been contaminated by the blood of the vampires seeping into his open wounds. Apparently in this movie… vampirism is like the zombie plague, you get it, get sick, die rather rapidly, and then rise up as one of the walking hungry dead. Bummer. Luckily, ninja guy isn’t shy about crushing skulls with that big ol’ log of his…….
Next… we switch to our main character, Akira (played by Hideo Ishiguro), and his school chums back in Tokyo and their day to day hijinxs before we find out about how badly things have really gone for Akira and his family since the mysterious disappearance of their talented son Atsushi (played by Dai Watanabe) and his fiance Ryoko some two years earlier. Without Atsushi to be the shining hope of the family’s fortune, they’ve fallen on hard times with Akira’s father now a worthless drunk, gambling away the family store and the money saved for his college education. That’s not all…. poor Akira is romantically pining after his childhood friend Yuki (played by Miori Takimoto) who’s completely blinded to his feelings for her by her own secret crush on mutual friend and super cool bad-boy Ken (played by Tomohisa Yuge). Ahhhh…Young love… how it always sucks in these sorts of films…Hehehehe!!
There’s a lot of this sort of very Anime/ Manga styled character stuff in “Higanjima”. All the prerequisite stereotypes are here….. the “punk bad-boy best friend” of the hero, the super cute girl who’s our hero’s childhood buddy and secret crush, the “smart kid”, the “fat kid”, the creepy “outsider kid”….. just like you get in about every Anime story ever made. That and that same old romantic triangle subplot….. Not that that’s always a bad thing…. but it does make for a very melodramatic story at times with you often wondering how young couples ever get together in these things (and it doesn’t help that by the end of this one… it still doesn’t get resolved. Arrrggghhh!!!) I’m thinking the run-time of two hours for this one could have shaved a bit off that by toning down this particular idea…. but that’s just this Catgirl’s opinion. (Mind you… this Catgirl’s idea of a vampire movie normally does require a bit more butt kicking and a lot less romance usually…. Hehehehe!!)
Anyway….. things certainly pick up once mysterious Rei (played by Asami Mizukawa) shows up with Atsushi’s driver’s license as proof that he’s still alive after all this time. Only one tiny problem…. he’s been trapped on her home island, Higanjima, where all the inhabitants have been turned into vampires by an ancient bloodsucking monster and become his deadly Army of the Night. Boy… now that just sucks. Still… Akira wants to save his brother, and agrees to go with Rei back to the island to rescue him. It’s sooooo, soooo definitely a trap, and even bad-boy Ken can see it, but Akira is determined to go anyway so he and all of Akira’s other school-friends all pledge to go with him and lend a hand. Dumb, dumb, dumb…… soooo darn dumb.
They no sooner set foot on the cursed island before they promptly get betrayed by Rei, captured by the vampire villagers, and meet Master Miyabi, the Vampire Lord of the island. Yep… Rei merely wanted to lure them here because with everybody a vampire… there’s nobody left for the monsters to feed on. Awww, crap. Don’t ya hate when that happens? Seems our heroes are going to be harvested one by one… drained for that juicy red liquid nourishment all happy vampires just ache for…. and right off the bat, they get forced to pick a member of their crew to “volunteer” to go first. Guess who? Yep… “creepy kid”, Son, gets sold out by two of the crew, only to have “rebel without a cause” Ken step up and take it just like the proper action hero ought to for his friends.
Naturally, Ken is just setting things up by getting all macho with the guards just so he can get them to drop the keys to the cell….. One quick escape later, a nick of time rescue for Ken from the abattoir of the damned and our heroes are split up and running for their lives from the vampires. Of course… right when they are gonna get captured they run into Atsushi, our vampire killing ninja from earlier. He’s working with “the Resistance”… last of the human villagers on the island and one freaky giant masked monk who are all that stand between Miyabi’s vampires and total destruction of the island population.
Here’s where our story starts to get a bit thin….. and the problems start. First off, it’s painfully evident that these vampires aren’t going to play by the rules we all know and love….. Daylight? Not a problem…. they flit about in the sunshine with nary a worry. Stake through the heart? Nope… you have to completely smash their head to bloody bits to stop them. Beheading works too… but you’d better be Zatoichi, because these things are both super strong as well as fast and nimble. Makes for some brutal fights… but also makes you wonder why they haven’t already taken over the entire world. So how did this all get started anyway? Well, we find out Atsushi himself is to blame for letting Lord Miyabi escape from his imprisonment in a shrine here on the island where all the villagers had him locked safely away like the devil in that goofy classic old “Twilight Zone” episode. He kills Atsushi’s fiance poor Ryoko… (apparently the only villager completely ignorant about the deadly prisoner in the shrine….. d’ohhh!!) and ravages the island in Atsushi’s flashback montage. And the giant monk? What the heck is his story? Can’t tell you who he really is…. ’cause they never tell us!! Auuuggghh!!Well… OK then… at least they’ll tell us how the super fast, unkillable and deadly Miyabi got imprisoned in the first place, right? Nawwwww… that might actually give them some idea how to defeat him again and we can’t have that ruining things can we? Auuuggghh!! Don’t even get me started about Miyabi’s giant gargoyle/dragon thingy he keeps in the old military tunnels beneath the island. Where the heck was that thing all those years he was locked away? Shy of the Japanese Defense Force or Godzilla dropping by I’ve no idea how the islanders were coping with that thing for two decades or so that Miyabi was imprisoned….
You really have to just take a deep breath and just let this sucker roll… ’cause it’s not in a mood to explain…. well…. anything really. It’s all very pretty mind you, and the fights… when they happen…. work really well. Miyabi himself is certainly a nifty and dapper looking villain too… although he does look like he escaped to “Higanjima” right from a “Castlevania” game. Very androgynous and pretty…. with his snazzy euro-goth swashbuckler wardrobe. (Wait a minute…. He was imprisoned all naked at the shrine for decades…. Where the heck did he get that? Ohhhhh… never mind….) So…. does this thing at least have an ending that satisfies the vampire fighting butt kicking promise of the story premise? Yes….
We get a climax that throws our rag-tag group of Resistance guys up against the vampires at Miyabi’s mountaintop fortress with enough vampire killing, monster fighting, sword-battling, explosion fueled action to end two movies. The vampires are vanquished…. but not without tragic losses for Akira and the gang. Even Rei switches sides at the crucial moment in true Anime inspired story telling to help our heroes at the very end. So the survivors head home and it’s a wrap, right? Nawwwwww…. too easy. There’s the essential twist bit at the end where Miyabi’s severed head summons his mystic power to shroud the island in storm clouds and set us up for…. “Higanjima 2: Return to Vampire Island, the Wrath of Miyabi”, coming soon to a DVD near you, Hehehehe!!
I wish I could say this one really scored… but unfortunately it was far too…. improbable, full of unanswered questions, and unresolved elements… for Neko to really get into it and enjoy it beyond just it being an evening’s fast, competent bit of flashy anime styled action. Don’t get me wrong…. It’s a well made film… just not a well realized one. I give “Higanjima” 3 “Meows” out of 5 for trying like heck, but just not hitting the mark and making me say “Wow!!”.
The Region 2 DVD is excellent…. with wide-screen anamorphic presentation and perfect English subtitles, there are a few bits of extra on board too, mostly promotional videos and the original Japanese Trailer, but that’s about it. Not bad, and certainly worth the price if Japanese fantasy films are your thing, but certainly no classic. Still…. they can’t all be “Azumi” now can they?
So…. after all this, is there a Trailer? Yep…. and here it goes!