Director: Shinsuke Sato
Writer: Kengo Hanazawa, Akiko Nogi
Cast: Yo Oizumi, Kasumi Arimura, Masami Nagasawa, Hisashi Yoshizawa, Yoshinori Okada, Nana Katase, Jin Katagiri, Makita Sports, Muga Tsukaji, Yu Tokui, Toru Kazama
Running Time: 126 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s rare for Asian movies to break out into the mainstream, and when they do, they’re normally of the martial arts variety. So in 2016, when the Korean zombie movie Train to Busan started getting global attention, thanks largely to word of mouth, it was something of a phenomena. Sure enough, the concept of a zombie outbreak occurring within the confines of a moving train was a unique one, and even though personally I didn’t feel that the whole added up to the sum of its parts, there were plenty of people out there that did. However there was another zombie movie released just a year prior to Train to Busan, and that came in the form of Japan’s I Am a Hero, a title which, for all intents and purposes, gives no indication to its subject matter.
In all fairness, people can be forgiven for writing off the Japanese zombie genre, and paying little attention to any new additions. The short lived wave of Japanese splatter flicks, churned out in the 5 year period from 2008 – 2012, quickly found audiences fatigued of a genre that, while initially fun in their over the top nature, soon came to rely on cheap and unconvincing CGI. Productions such as 2008’s Zombie Hunter Rika and 2010’s Helldriver are both poor excuses for feature length movies, and most audiences agreed. Micro-budgets, excessive CGI blood splatter, and little to no story, proved that even the most hardened zombie fan likes at least a little reasoning and quality control to their undead fix.
With that background, it’s perhaps understandable that I Am a Hero hasn’t quite made the same waves as its Korean counterpart. The lack of recognition is unfortunate, as not only is I Am a Hero a far superior slice of zombie entertainment, I’d go so far as to say it’s the most entertaining zombie flick I’ve seen since 28 Days Later revived the genre back in 2002. The ‘hero’ in question is played by Yo Oizumi, a struggling manga artist who, after winning the Best Newcomer award 15 years ago, has failed to fulfil the bright future that once seemingly lay ahead. Within the first 10 minutes, we witness his latest idea for a comic get rejected, and his long term girlfriend reach breaking point in her wait for their lives to improve, leading to her kicking him out of their apartment with only his shotgun (and his licence for it, we’ll get to that later) for company.
Indeed during the opening of I Am a Hero you’d have no indication that it’s a zombie movie at all. The only hint comes from a news broadcast casually playing in the background of the confined Manga studio, covering a story in which a woman was bitten by a dog, during which, as the story comes to a close, the anchor apologies and confirms that it was actually the other way around. However, after receiving a phone call from his ex, sounding distinctly under the weather and apologetic, Oizumi rushes over to the apartment to check up on her, leading to the first scene in a zombie movie which I can say legitimately scared the living daylights out of me in a long time. Needless to say, ‘under the weather’ is an understatement, and soon more and more people are falling victim to the strange virus that turns them into blood thirsty members of the walking dead.
One of the most welcome elements of I Am a Hero are the zombies themselves. Their look is refreshingly gruesome, with no half-baked makeup, or reliance on extras pacing around with their mouths open. The transformation, which involves the eyes bulging out and flesh immediately rotting, is brilliantly done, and a significant reliance on practical effects aided by CGI, rather than the other way around, makes a huge difference. Unlike Train to Busan’s rather toothless approach to gore, I Am a Hero positively embraces it, and does so with top level special effects that put it in an entirely different league than the productions mentioned earlier. Heads explode, limbs are torn off, and faces are ripped apart in a manner that’s never less than convincing.
At its core though, is Oizumi himself, a haplessly timid character who insists on doing everything by the book. He’s the exact opposite of the typical hero found in a zombie movie, the constant rejection he’s faced draining any kind of ambition out of him. Precisely because of his completely average nature, as an audience you’re constantly torn between being frustrated, and at the same time, being able to understand his actions. Such a setup also allows for plenty of darkly comical moments, such as his stubborn refusal to use his shotgun in public, as it’s against the law, and his reluctance to let anyone else use it, as they don’t have a licence. However his character also allows for I Am a Hero’s most human moments, such as when he fails to save an acquaintance, even when he had the opportunity to do so, leading to him angrily questioning himself as to why he’s so useless.
The story itself is based on a Manga by Kengo Hanazawa, and was brought to the big screen by director Shinsuke Sato. Sato got his directorial debut by cutting his teeth on the Donnie Yen choreographed Princess Blade in 2001, and has since then been behind many of the 2-part manga adaptions that plague mainstream Japanese cinema, such as Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer, and more recently Library Wars and Library Wars: The Last Mission. Whatever discussion took place behind the scenes that resulted in the decision to not make I Am a Hero another 2-parter, is one that we should all be thankful for. The 20-volume Manga has been stripped down to a lean and mean 2 hour production that works perfectly, with zero time wasted on such unnecessary sub-plots as romantic interests, and most significantly for a Japanese mainstream movie, a welcome lack of lengthy exposition.
The 2nd half of I Am a Hero heads into familiar territory, as Oizumi and a schoolgirl he saved along the way, played by Kasumi Arimura, come across a group of survivors camped out on the rooftop of an outlet mall. Interestingly, as a piece of trivia the location of the mall is actually one that went out of business a few years ago in Korea, as the strict gun laws in Japan meant the producers couldn’t get permission to use firearms at any suitable locations in Japan itself. The nod to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is an obvious one, however it never becomes derogatory. The mall also expands on what we know about the zombies, as one survivor explains that once turned, they revert to behaving in a way which reflects whatever they were most used to doing. One zombie is observed standing motionless, his arm outstretched holding onto an invisible rail, as if on the train to the office, while another desperately attempts to enter the mall so they can shop.
Of course, the initially welcoming leader of the group, played by Hisashi Yoshizawa, soon reveals a darker side, and it’s eventually the combination of both the zombies, and the dark side of human nature, that finally forces Oizumi to stop running away and take action. His decision to step up is not only a punch the air moment, but it also leads into one of the most excessively bloody zombies versus humans confrontations that’s been witnessed onscreen for quite some time. While I’d stop short of saying it rivals the lawnmower madness of Peter Jackson’s Braindead, there’s no denying that there’s a cathartic joy of witnessing Oizumi’s decision to finally put his shooting hobby into practice, as they become more and more surrounded by hordes of the undead.
I Am a Hero ultimately proves to be a suitably ironic title, something that will only be understood after watching it, which I’d recommend everyone to do without hesitation. That rare combination of a character driven zombie flick that, on top of being a character piece, also wants to be an unapologetic gore fest. It’s not so much a case that such a combination has never been successfully pulled off, but rather, is hardly ever attempted. Horrifying, funny, and exhilarating in equal measures, I Am a Hero is everything a zombie movie should be, and maybe even a little more.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10