Dragonhead (2003)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 10, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

Japanese pop literature is saturated with apocalyptic stories. Even a cursory review of the popular manga and anime universes reveals an incredible proliferation of the genre—from Akira (1989) to Neon Genesis Evangelion to Macross. Toho's live-action films are as chock-o-block with apocalyptic visions as any other studio in Japan, what with films like Gorath (1962), Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1987), and, to a degree, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). As the only country to ever be attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan is, tragically, something of an authority on apocalypses. I will admit right now that I don't like apocalyptic movies. Even though I am a Christian, I never got into the Left Behind phenomenon, and as a general rule, I avoid dolorous doomsday diatribes. However, being a genre film nut, inevitably cinematic apocalypses explode before my eyes on a fairly regular basis. Thus I found myself popping in 2003's sci-fi offering, Dragonhead. Unfortunately, no dragon heads were to be found, but nihilistic Armageddon clichedom certainly was.

High school student Teru Aoki (Satoshi Tsumabaki, Water Boys) is on his way home to Tokyo after a school trip when something happens to the bullet train he is riding and he blacks out. Upon awakening, he discovers the train has crashed inside a collapsed tunnel and that everyone around him is dead and splashed with a dash or two of blood. Teru is understandably upset, and he expresses this by falling down a lot. He quickly discovers that he was not the only survivor; fellow student Nobuo (Takayuki Yamada, Train Man) has also made it through the disaster, although his mind has not. Nobuo, formerly the butt of pranks and cruel teasing, has suddenly become a homicidal maniac with a fetish for red lipstick, and before long is painting kissy marks all across his body. Teru, along with another survivor—the requisite cute-and-helpless young female, Ako (Sayaka—what is it with Japanese celebrities and the lack of last names?), find their way out of the tunnel and into a sprawling world choked in death and ash. Even when they do discover survivors, they would have been better off alone; everyone seems to be violently insane, with a penchant for sudden, cackling murder. With hope running short, Teru and Ako cling to each other and to a tenuous, desperate hope of returning to Tokyo and some semblance of life.

Dragonhead, which is yet another film based on a comic, is almost relentlessly depressing. If something bad can happen, it usually does, and then it usually gets worse. The story is completely humorless, while parading the clichés of a world gone mad across the screen even while Teru and Ako somehow retain reasonable levels of sanity. (Teru does go a little nuts in isolation, but he never seems to be stricken with the "magnetic imbalance" insanity that everyone else is suffering from.) The disasters function like clockwork, alternately saving our heroes from gun-wielding wackos and menacing them with fiery death. Somehow, as everyone else dies around them, Teru and Ako only get a thick dusting of ash across their bodies. It really seems like the entire earth itself is out to kill everyone except the leads—at one point, as Teru and Ako flee from a collapsing building, giant rocks fall on the people around them with incredible accuracy, almost as if they were aimed that way. No wonder everyone is going mad.

There are a few interesting novelties in this film. A doctor, in trying to rescue his children from the horrors of insanity, gives them a lobotomy that robs them of all emotion, and another group of survivors consume special brain-numbing survival rations that reduce them into an almost vegetable-like stupor. The film is trying to explore what it means to be human, I think, and the drive to survive—is survival means losing your humanity, is it worth surviving? However, all of this is accompanied by a lot of pseudo-philosophical talk from the leads that is sometimes several notches below convincing.

For all the angst and hogwash, the acting isn't too bad. Satoshi Tsumabaki is fairly credible as the distraught Teru, at least when he isn't falling down all the time. I've seen Tsumabaki in a number of roles, and in my opinion he always gives a solid, workmanlike performance—but nothing he has done has made me want to search out his movies. Dragonhead doesn't change that. Sayaka, as cliché-girl Ako, manages to be cute even with ash covering her body, but she isn't given much to do beyond squeaking and clinging to Teru. Supporting actors tend to chew the scenery while spouting melodramatic nonsense like, "embrace the darkness." Basically, they exist as a wicked contrast to Teru and Ako's sanity, and are there to distract us from the fact that our heroes don't really have much personality.

The music is much like most everything else in the film—very forgettable. Most of it is extremely simple, plodding stuff to underscore how tragic everything is. As I listened, I couldn't imagine someone enjoying this stuff outside of the context of the film. It was there simply to enhance mood, not to exist as credible music unattached to Dragonhead. In my opinion, this is a valid choice for the movie, although it doesn't strengthen the movie very much.

The biggest highlight of the film was the special effects, which isn't surprising as Shinji Higuchi, SFX maestro behind the 1990's Gamera trilogy, helped design them. Dragonhead creates a pretty credible wasted world, with huge, bleak landscapes, and impressive ash-covered sets. Some of the CGI work, which is used heavily on backgrounds and to make the sky look menacing, isn't very convincing and occasionally looks like it would do better in a PlayStation 2 game, but mostly it is done well. Some of the sequences involving burnt corpses and ravaged buildings strongly reminded me the horrors I saw at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, which is a testament to their design.

Simply put, I don't like movies like Dragonhead. I admire the look of the film, and I acknowledge that the film is executed competently and even has a few interesting ideas. However, those good things are buried in the bad, and, at least for this viewer, Dragonhead is less dragon and more drag.