By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The zombie genre, along with the ever-expanding superhero universe, has certainly suffered from overkill during the past decade. A seemingly indefatigable number of movies have come our way, with film-makers desperately trying to re-invent the undead in some way. But for every hit (Yomigaeri / 28 Days Later / REC. / Shaun of The Dead) there are dozens of misses, so it is always greeted with enthusiasm when a film does comes along and strike an unmistakable bullseye. I Am a Hero is one such film.
Opening with a mundane news report that turns into something oddly unexplainable, our attention soon sets on a small office, where a group of manga artists are attempting to complete a project before a looming deadline. Among them is Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), a 35 year-old assistant who has been dreaming of success for quite some time, but has never managed to achieve it. The inner fire is there, but Suzuki does not have the confidence to let that ambition reach the surface. It’s a trait that not only frustrates his girlfriend Tekko (Nana Katase), but also allows prospective publishers to easily dismiss his own work at the pitching table.
When Suzuki’s personal life starts to fall apart, the world around him does the same, to a spectacular degree. A virus known as ZQN (which originally manifested in the Fukushima area) is sweeping the country, turning everyday citizens into crazed, cannibalistic zombies. Hearing reports that ascending Mt. Fuji will guarantee safety, as the high altitude will kill the virus, Suzuki, with sheathed shotgun slung over his shoulder, haphazardly makes his way out of Tokyo.
During his escape he runs into terrified high school student Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), and teaming up, the two manage to reach the foot of the iconic mountain. Coming across a zombie-infested shopping mall, Suzuki and Hiromi are rescued by a rag-tag group who survived the initial onslaught, and are currently led by the increasingly intimidating Iura (Hisashi Yoshizawa). These bewildered and battered people have managed to elude the infected by holing up on the roof. The newcomers do befriend Yabu (Masami Nagasawa), a former nurse who wants everyone to work together as a family, rather than the dog-eat-dog mentality which is taking over instead, due to Iura’s oppressive attitude.
As supplies begin to run low, Yabu, Suzuki, and Hiromi know they have to escape this toxic environment, as danger is now not only coming from the undead, but also from the living who are supposed to be looking out for one another.
Based on Keno Hanazawa’s highly successful manga (first published in 2009), screenwriter Akiko Nogi adapts the long-running source material to the big screen with exemplary focus and skill. Taking the time to set up both character and locale before the bloody apocalypse arrives; Nogi wants audience involvement to be more than mere admiration for gory detail and mayhem.
The influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Living Dead series is undeniable (especially Dawn of The Dead), but what sets I Am a Hero apart from so many imitators is its own sense of identity, coupled with an intelligent exploration of the community’s current fears and concerns. Like Romero’s classics, this continues to show that a zombie epidemic can be the perfect metaphor for what is ailing the modern world. Each zombie’s specific character traits are unique, placing a tangible human face on such a massively surreal disaster.
Bringing the script to life is Shinsuke Sato, who has plenty of experience helming manga adaptations. The director had notable success with both the Gantz and Library Wars series, and most recently gave audiences the slick-but-uneven Death Note: Light Up The New World. As entertaining as the Gantz movies were, this is by far his most assured work to date, confidently building the story’s dramatic framework while delivering a number of truly memorable action set-pieces. Sato cleverly puts the plight of the main characters front-and-centre, which in-turn makes the zombie confrontations all-the-more unsettling.
Completing a perfect trifecta is its well-chosen cast. Oizumi, known for his comedic roles in more lighthearted films such as The Kiyosu Conference, Bread of Happiness, and Twilight: Saya In Sasara, fully commits to what is quite an unusual role. Finding it hard to consider the mere thought of gunning people down, even if they are undead, Oizumi conveys Suzuki’s paralyzing insecurities in believable fashion. By using up a considerable portion of screen time developing Suzuki’s transition from pacifist everyman to potential hero, the film-makers allow the individual viewer to examine how they themselves would react to such an overwhelming situation.
Matching Oizumi is the superb Nagasawa (Our Little Sister / Crying Out Love In The Centre Of The World / Yomigaeri), who invests Yabu with a mixture of strength and vulnerability. The rest of the impressive cast, including Arimura (Strobe Edge / Flying Colours), Yoshizawa (Night Of The Shooting Stars / A Lone Scalpel), and Muga Tsukaji (Akko-chan: The Movie / Handsome Suit) as one of Suzuki’s manga colleagues, all deliver first-rate performances.
Production values are of a high standard, and whether it be the early, eye-popping scenes of zombie invasion, or the non-stop carnage of its blood-soaked finale, the formidable technical crew never falter in presenting the story’s unstoppable horrors in an utterly credible manner. This is also a film that is definitely not for the squeamish.
Along with South Korea’s Train To Busan, I Am a Hero is one of the best zombie movies to come out in years. Serious in intent and smart in execution, this is a film that treats both the genre and its fans with respect.