Ugh, again with the zombies? The sub-genre has died and come back to life more times than I don’t know what, but while too many examples are uninspired and instantly forgettable there are still freshly invigorating zombie films to be found. One of the best has been making the festival rounds for a couple years (and has just been released in the US on Blu-ray/VOD), and it’s called I Am a Hero.
Hideo Suzuki (Yô Ôizumi) is an assistant in a small manga outfit who daydreams about being a better, more popular man. He tells everyone his name is written with the characters that mean “hero,” but his reality is far from heroic. An uptick in the flu leads to a viral onslaught turning people into flesh-craving monsters, and soon Hideo is on the run with only a teenage girl and his skeet-shooting rifle (plus permit) as company. It’s time to put up or shut up as Hideo is finally given the opportunity to be a real hero in other people’s eyes. Or maybe he’ll just be their dinner instead?
Director Shinsuke Sato and writer Akiko Nogi do a fantastic job adapting the multi-volume manga hit into a feature film, and while genre pics running over two hours often feel bloated or lethargic I Am a Hero moves with tremendous energy while still allowing time for character. It’s a smart, serious, entertaining look at one man’s resistance to risk and how all it takes is a zombie apocalypse to help him find his inner strength.
Hideo is a terrific everyman whose attempts at writing his own manga are consistently shot down with the complaint that his protagonists are just far too “average.” His prized possession, the skeet gun, becomes a talisman of sorts for him once the nightmare kicks in, but he holds out in using it because it’s illegal to discharge in public. Laws are laws, and the film has fun with the conceit including a comment from one survivor tired from bashing in a zombie’s head with a bat. “If this was the US it’d just take one shot,” he says, envious of those with easier access to guns. The rifle, along with Hideo himself, are built beautifully throughout so that when he finally unloads with the weapon it’s in gloriously triumphant fashion.
That’s not to say the bloodletting is held back until the third act either. The film’s creatively gory design starts early when Hideo’s girlfriend falls victim to the virus and attacks him. The eye design of the afflicted is particularly memorable, and while they shamble quickly more than run they’re also prone to creepy contortions. Action is both intimate with one on one fights for survival and epic as Hideo and others fight through a crowd overrun with zombies, and blood, limbs, and brains are spilled with abandon. There’s some CG blood that underwhelms, but most of the gory goods come via practical work.
The film follows some pretty standard genre beats as Hideo takes on a stranger in young Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura) and tries to protect her in their search of safety, and savvy film-goers will know not to fully trust the survivor enclave that takes the pair in out of the kindness of their heart. These turns never feel overly familiar, though, thanks to a combination of strong execution and visible tweaks to the expected norm. We have a general idea where things are heading at any given moment, but the film is prone to surprises. Hideo wishes he was too, but as each opportunity for bravery passes him by viewers are tasked with determining if he’s the hero we should be rooting for.
Sato’s built a solid filmography on the back of manga adaptations with films like Bleach (2018), Inuyashiki (2018), and Gantz (2010), but this feels like his most accomplished yet. It’s far more grounded than the others even as the story explodes into genre fare, and the result is a feature that reaches across horror/action lines to find footing in the more relatable realm of human existence. We all want to be better, stronger, braver than we are, but hopefully it won’t take murderous, carnivorous zombies to help us find that determination.