SXSW Review: Higanjima

By  · Published on March 20th, 2010


As foreign films go, Japan is probably my favorite country. There is a freedom of spirit and rejection of inhibition that produces some of the most unique films on the planet. Oh, and also these films tend to be bat shit insane. Thanks to the Fantastic Fest at Midnight slate of films at this year’s SxSW, greatest idea the festival has ever had by the way, I was able to see a Japanese vampire film called Higanjima. Would it be another title from the far east that struck my fancy, or would this vampire film just plain suck? Rimshots upon request.

Higanjima is the story of two brothers: Akira and Atsushi. The elder brother, Atsushi, has fallen in love and accompanies his beloved to her native village to ask her father permission for them to wed. Trouble is, sweet miss thing lives on a island called Higanjima that is right at the threshold of a vampire uprising. She becomes the first of what amounts to an incalculable number of victims of these undead fiends. Soon the island is overrun with vampires and Atsushi is trapped there to fend them off as best he can. Meanwhile his young brother Akira, having been originally told his brother was dead, receives word of Atsushi’s plight, gathers a group of his friends and sets sail to rescue him. Will Akira be able to slay enough vamps to bring his brother home?

Higanjima is an interesting mess of a film. What struck me most about it was how the early portions of the film are styled like an American film. The framing of shots, the action music, the obligatory slow-motion, and even the lighting all culminating in an aesthetic not usually found in Japanese cinema. There’s even a character dressed like a rockabilly star which was hilariously contrary. It was fascinating to watch as the film slowly allows its native film traits to emerge. The moment we are treated to a over-exposed flashback with an overbearing classical score is the first distinctly Japanese moment. By about the time you get to the guy with the limb replaced by a CG, mechanical sword it’s clear that the American conventions have been gleefully abandoned.

Higanjima starts off with a bang that sets up a great popcorn action/horror film with a guys-on-a-mission feel. It had culturally relevant adaptations to the vampire blueprint that were really effective even though I had to constantly ignore the glaring inaccuracy of vampires walking around in the daylight; despite what some fake vampire series have tried to profess, this is a genre fallacy. I also enjoyed the scene wherein all the members of the stake squad were introduced. When they arrive on the island, which by the way the Island of the Vampires concept is gorgeously Ed Wood-esque, there arises this very entertaining Battle Royale atmosphere.

So there is a lot of fun to be mined from the film, but its biggest problem is that it suffers from a bloated run time. There were a good 30 minutes that could have been easily cut from the film and it would not have missed a beat. Within these superfluous scenes, the film does little except muddle its focus. The extra scenes are those that erratically shift focus from the teen vampire killers, to the older brother’s backstory, to a tribe of humans on the island, and finally to the head vampire. Clearly, there is an argument to be made for multifaceted storytelling. But these shifts in focus are sloppy and produce a lot of dead air in the narrative. While it did have the double disadvantage of being a midnight film near the end of the fest, I found it telling that half the audience was asleep during the majority of these lags.

The other problem I have with the film is the horrendously bad CG. In a movie about vampires, and about people that kill those vampires with swords, you can expect a healthy serving of blood and gore, upon which Higanjima delivers. But the blood is that overly-saturated, gelatinous brand that made Ninja Assassin so laughable. What kills me about this is that there are some really interesting practical makeup effects in the film that beg the question of why so many other practical elements were sacrificed. The worst has to be the giant gargoyle monster who is rubbery and completely at odds with the objects in the background so as to emphasize the fabrication. The bogus CG monster problem feeds into the run time dilemma as the monster is killed with grandeur and finality and then, inexplicably gets up to start the epic battle all over again. It adds nothing and just feels monumentally repetitive.

I wanted to like Higanjima; truth be told the opening made me want to love it. But it shoots itself in the foot with a bloated run time and miserable CG. It’s not a bad film, and if it were to be edited before a DVD release it could be really enjoyable. In fact, its employment of American movie styles and the reserve it shows on the weird-for-weird sake material typically found in Japanese films would give it a wider appeal in the states. But again, a lot of fat needs to be trimmed from the movie before that will happen.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.