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  • TBC
  • Action, Drama
  • 2002
  • 114 mins




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


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 is what Americans would call a sophomore effort.

Like second albums, second films can be a tricky business and while Alive certainly seems to form a conceptual continuum with Kitamura's first feature, 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. Condemned to death for murdering the six men who raped his girlfriend Misako (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 (Sugimoto) who, as a serial murderer/rapist, represents the most incompatible of cellmates given Tenshu's particular hang-up.

Over the next 12 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 (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 Alien 3 (1992) with the experimental paranoia of Cube (1997), the manga-based excesses of Story Of Ricky (1991) and the fascist dystopias of Escape From New York (1981) 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 the 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 , 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.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Shun Sugata, Tak Sakaguchi, Tetta Sugimoto, Jun Kunimura, Koyuki, Erika Oda, Ryo, Renji Ishibashi, Bengal, Hideo Sakaki
  • Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
  • Screen Writer: Ryuhei Kitamura, Yudai Yamaguchi, Isao Kiriyama
  • Writer (Comic book): Tsutomu Takahashi
  • Producer: Shuichi Kakesu, Hidemi Satani, Taizô Fukumaki
  • Photographer: Takumi Furuya, Daisuke Yano
  • Composer: Nobuhiko Morino

In a nutshell

The future prison looks fantastic, the concept is rock solid, and yet in Ryuhei Kitamura's second feature, something goes wrong in the execution.

by Anton Bitel

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