Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Fantasia Film Fest Review: M.W.
M.W. (2009) imdb Fantasia
Directed by Hitoshi Iwamoto
Written by Tetsuya Ôishi based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka
This is a pitch perfect, breathless little mystery thriller. Part Hitchcock's I Confess, part Farnkenheimer's Black Sunday and the mind-blowing bit is that it is based on a manga by the guy who created Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion. It's as if, after Mary Poppins won 5 Oscars in 1965, Walt Disney announced that his next project would be about two veterans gassed by Agent Orange in Vietnam, one of whom becomes a priest while his best friend becomes a serial killer. (Usually, it is Hayao Miyazaki who is compared to Walt Disney and the comparison is apt, but it works almost as well with Osamu Tezuka.)
The manga M.W. (started in 1976 by Tezuka) must have shredded the minds of his Japanese fans. It is about two boys on whose island the U.S. Army is developing a deadly nerve gas. On one horrific night, there is an accident and the gas covers the island. Those not killed by the gas are slaughtered by the U.S. Army in a desperate cover-up that the Japanese government aids and abets. The two boys are the only survivors. Taken in by a kindly Roman Catholic priest. they grow up to be complete opposites.
Yutaro Garai (played by Takayuki Yamada) becomes a priest and takes over the parish belonging to the priest who took him in, while Michio Yuki (played by Hiroshi Tamaki) is a successful banker and an even more successful serial killer.
The film wisely burns through the confession sequence. It is clear that this is a dance that the two men have done repeatedly. Yuki commits crimes, then confesses to Yutaro, not because of any guilt, but because he knows that it torments Yutaro. Guilt is the stock in trade of Catholics of course, but Yutaro is not just guilty because of the way that the seal of his confessional is being abused by his oldest friend. Yutaro is convinced that he is responsible for Yuki's lack of conscience. On the fateful night, Yutaro stumbled and Yuki came back to save him - only to get dosed by the gas. Yotaro is convinced that the gas melted the part of Yuki's brain that allows men to tell between right and wrong; the gas melted Yuki's soul. (Yuki, it should be said, has a much more prosaic reason for his actions.)
In addition to the conflict between the two almost brothers, Yutaro is pursued by two dogged but very different detectives: Tokyo cop Kazuyuki Sawaki (played by Ryo Ishibashi) and investigative reporter Kyoko Makino (played by Yuriko Ishida). Both pursue their own independent investigations with their own very different techniques and resources, both leading eventually to Yuki. The tension of the film is built on whether any of the three Yutaro, Sawaki or Makino will figure out what Yuki is up to before it's too late to stop him.
The most interesting thing about M.W. is that it built on the framework of a Godzilla film, only with a human-scale monster with ambitions to create Godzilla-scale destruction. The monster is created as a result of a U.S. Army experiment on an isolated island. (Albeit a bio-chemical experiment rather than a nuclear one.) The monster begins his rampage away from Japan (the film starts in Thailand) and gradually rampages towards Tokyo. In the best Godzilla films, there is usually an investigation to try and figure out what is causing the destruction, what created the monster, what its' motives are and how to stop it. And in a certain way if Yuki is Godzilla, than Yutaro is Mothra, created from the same destructive energies, but devoted to peace instead of destruction. And ultimately the film ends the way that all Godzilla films must end.
While not exactly subtle in its symbolism at times (Yutaro spends the last third of the film dressed in white to Yuki's black) M.W. is a very smart thriller paced like a runaway locomotive. Well worth the effort to track down.