Alive (2002)

Alive first published by Film4

Summary: In Ryuhei Kitamura’s dystopian prison sci-fi, it is not just the humans who are trapped inside and looking to get out. 

Review: If Ryuhei Kitamura exploded into the world of cult cinema with his low-budget feature debut Versus (2000), a moviegeek’s wet dream of yakuza gunplay, samurai set-pieces and zombie gore, then Alive, based on the manga of the same name by Tsutomu Takahashi, is what Americans would call a sophomore effort. 

Like second albums, second fims can be a tricky business – and while Alive certainly seems to form a conceptual continuum with Kitamura’s first feature, once again elevating violence to an almost Platonic level of abstraction, and even including a climactic chapter (teasingly entitled ‘Versus’) in which the two original stars of Versus (Hideo Sakaki, Tak Sakaguchi) are shown facing off once again in a duel of near cosmic proportions, it also repeats several of the earlier film’s flaws (chiefly poor dialogue and near non-existent characterisation), without being able this time around to cite an ultra-low budget or filmmaking inexperience as an excuse. 

Tenshu (Sakaki) is, officially speaking, dead. A man condemned for murdering the six men who raped his girlfriend Misako (Erika Oda), and possibly for murdering her too, he has just survived his own execution, and been offered an awful choice: either face immediate re-execution, or agree to participate in an unspecified experiment. Opting for the latter, he finds himself locked in a large underground chamber with a second convict named Gondoh (Tetta Sugimoto) who, as a serial murderer/rapist, represents the most incompatible of cellmates given Tenshu’s particular hang-up. 

Over the next twelve days, the chamber’s temperature is raised, food supplies are reduced, and deafening alarms are regularly sounded, in measures designed to awaken the two convicts’ most aggressive tendencies (think Big Brother for murderers) – and then they are introduced to Yuriko (Ryo), a beautiful woman who harbours within herself a killer parasite in search of a new host. As Yuriko’s sister Asuka (Koyuki), another scientist (Jun Kunimura), and a ruthless politician (Bengal) all watch from the relative security of a control room, the Darwinian combat in the chamber begins. Will anyone in the end be left alive?

Alive is a prison-set SF/fantasy that combines the enemy-within plotting of Alien3 (1992) with the experimental paranoia of Cube (1997), the manga-based excesses of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) and the fascist dystopias of Escape from New York (1981), The Running Man (1987), Fortress (1993) and No Escape (1994). What is original here is the careful conflation of physical, physiological and psychological brands of imprisonment, in a film that traps the viewer in an almost colourless palette of dull greys, and a pulsing feedback-and-electronic soundtrack from which there is never any escape. 

Make no mistake: Alive represents a real advance on Versus in terms of its design. The custom-built, bunker-like sets establish just the right atmosphere of claustrophobia, while their strange, ziggurat-like angles make them objects of Brutalist beauty in their own right. Takumi Furuya’s camera-work is fluid and controlled. The limited colour range only adds to the film’s visual style – and Kitamura appears to have discovered a whole new sense of pace, taking his time to ratchet up the tension before allowing the violence to spurt and spill. 

The problem is that this more mature approach acts to emphasise the rank immaturity of Kitamura, Yûdai Yamaguchi and Isao Kiriyama’s writing (and some of the performances). What is more, all the carefully managed build-up merely leads to a series of surprisingly flat fights, inflected with all the ‘bullet-time’ CG antics – but few of the thrills – of The Matrix (1999). Lacking conviction or even élan, these supposed climaxes are the film’s biggest let-down, reducing all Kitamura’s themes (the elusiveness of freedom, the contagiousness of violence, the inhumanity of man) to some rather undistinguished biffo. Good thing that in his next, not entirely dissimilarly themed feature Aragami (2003), Kitamura would find more concentrated, more economic, and frankly better ways to marry his action to his ideas.     

Verdict: The future prison looks fantastic, the concept is rocksolid, and yet in Ryuhei Kitamura’s second feature, something goes wrong in the execution.  

Anton Bitel