EIFF 2012: ‘Isn’t Anyone Alive?’ is, ironically or not, frequently lifeless

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Isn’t Anyone Alive? (Ikiterumono wa inainoka)
Written by Shirô Maeda
Directed by Gakuryu Ishii
Japan, 2012

Set around a university and its campus hospital, veteran director Gakuryu Ishii’s play adaptation follows several groups of students, and the occasional older presence, who go about their everyday lives against the backdrop of a series of mysterious public transport accidents. They are each then inconvenienced by their deaths through sudden, unexplained internal failure, as human life around them seems to slowly be succumbing to a version of the apocalypse. A premise that seems ripe for a horror imagining by someone like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ishii’s film does not cater to any specific genre or narrative formula, instead following its characters as they wander the campus knowing and waiting to die.

The film’s strength is its farcical look at aspects of the human condition, where image is often valued over life. Characters fret over what their last words will be, a celebrity student still basks in his fame despite trying to contain a bodily combustion, and a hospital employee with a crush begs strangers to give his love a tape of himself singing; they do, but the awful song ends up scoring the demise of one student, much to his dismay. Many of these comedic highlights occur in an extended set of riotously funny scenes in a hospital corridor, as groups continually encounter and dwindle, and spout off some deliciously absurd dialogue. Two oddball characters called Yama and Dr. Fish prove to be the most valuable comedic forces, and the most consistently entertaining aspect.

Unfortunately, the entire film does not thrive in dark absurdist satire. The first thirty five minutes of the nearly two hour film are devoted to introducing and following various groups as they discuss their various plans for the day. This languid stretch proves to become quite tiresome the longer it progresses, but it also sets up the characters who are engaging to follow and those who are not. The set that are includes the various players who assemble in the hospital corridor: the providers of the wit. Everyone else is a vehicle for weak attempts at drama and irksome social statements. Not only are most of these characters and scenes really tedious to follow, they feel completely at odds with the film’s comedic side, which is not helped by the frequent switching back and forth between what is almost like two different films within one: the comedic version and the dramatic. Exploring the banality of issues of life and death is an intriguing prospect, but with one “half” of the film working in a far inferior fashion to the other, Isn’t Anyone Alive just ends up too bloated and scattered to evoke much.

Josh Slater-Williams

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