Higanjima (2009)

Last night, I watched a Japanese vampire film called Higanjima, which is based on a manga book series of the same name.

Meet Atsushi, an overly sensitive high school student whose brother has been missing for two years. After a cold teaser opening that introduces the vampires (and gory ways to kill them), we see Atsushi run away from a group of troublemakers. Coincidentally, his escape route leads him past every single one of his friends, who are thus introduced. Atsushi is saved by a beautiful and mysterious woman who claims to have information about his brother’s whereabouts. Of course, the secret behind it all is much bigger……

…… it always is, isnt’ it?

This very clunky form of exposition aside, the film starts quite promising. There is some decent choreography, and visually the film really looks good. I am no fan of gore myself, but I am ready to accept that this film is not doing any half-measures in that respect but is going for gore whole-heartedly. The methods by which vampires are killed in this film are accordingly often rather inventive and elaborate, and invariably messy.

Unfortunately, the film is saddled right from the start with tons of teenage issues and especially teenage angst. If I tell you that Atsushi’s group of friends are all stereotypes and that ‘Higanjima’ is, in fact, an island, it might already dawn on you what particular sub-genre we find ourselves in: the typical “trapped teens” splatter film. I tried to define this sub-genre in my review of Prowl, but it basically needs no definition as anyone knows this type of film anyway. Here, we have all the important elements. Group of teenagers (‘check!’), all stock characters (‘check!’), trapped in geographically isolated location (‘check!’), with no way of getting out (‘check!’); a location where GPS does not work (‘check!’) and where there is no cell-phone reception (‘check!’). Now just add lots of gore and some exploitation elements and you have got your film.

There are some additional themes thrown into this film (but often barely used): brotherly love, some martial arts, an abusive relationship… and, of course, vampires. The ‘vampires’ in this film are basically just blood-drinking creatures with long teeth that could have easily been substituted for any other kind of monster. In this respect, Higanjima is similar to the aforementioned Prowl, another “trapped teens” film I reviewed a while back. It is the “trapped teens” premise and all the “technicalities” (isolated location, etc.) that were really important for the creator of the manga, the precise nature of the monsters was surely a secondary concern.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why the vampires in this film are in their ways and looks more reminiscent of traditional Japanese film monsters than of vampires.

There is some confusion and variety as well: one of the vampires possesses abilites that the others seem to lack. And there is at least one additional creature that has no perceivable connection to the vampires.

Those things said, the film is still pretty much on solid “trapped teen” slasher grounds when, 82 minutes into the film, a new set of characters is introduced; and that introduction and the segment that follows robs the film of most of its momentum (which did not amount to much in the first place). The melodramatic teenage angst that had already been a burden to the film so far, now gets intensified and becomes increasingly whiney.

And this leads me to another problem of the film: I did not really like any of the characters that much. I did not connect with them and so I did not really care what happened to them. The whiney teenage angst was probably one reason, but I also feel that there was a lot of bad acting. But it is kind of hard to tell because of all the melodrama, so I am tempting to lay a lot of the blame at the feet of director Tae-gyun Kim. For example, male lead Hideo Ishiguro seems like a very fine actor for the first couple of minutes of screen-time (when his character Akira is still behaving like a normal human being, before he morphs into an annoying whiner). On the plus side, there is a lot of decent choreography and the actors follow it through in a competent manner.

From that slowed-down section the film moves on into a very prolonged final battle which is marred by really bad CGI. With all the slow elements and the prolonged end battle(s) the film ends up with a total runnning time of two hours. And that time is not used well at all: there are two key characters we know absolutely nothing about; likewise, the main villain also has no back-story whatsoever. Nor does the film offer any mythology or lore regarding these vampires. And then there is one important sub-plot that is hinted at but never developed. With two hours running time (and many scenes that feel more like fillers than anything else), the film should have managed to find the time to shed some light on those back story elements.

Many of the problems mentioned betray the fact that this is based on a series of mangas. For such serialised material, a TV show often seems to be the more appropriate form of adaptation. And with Higanjima, they took that route in 2013, rebooting the material only four years after this film’s release.

I am sure that this film can be quite entertaining if you like gore and the “trapped teens” sub-genre (which I do not). But you also need a certain aptitude to enjoy bad dialogue and acting and you should take all the pompous silliness of this film as part of the entertainment package.

Bad CGI aside, Higanjima is quite competently made; and with regards to teen slasher horror it fulfils its obligations as genre fare. Personally, I would rate this film at between 4.5 and 5.0 out of 10.

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