“Sometimes disturbing and confronting, sometimes fun, but ever engaging, the narrative underlines the influence society, (…) has on the subject, and how the collapse of a symbolic structure opens up the possibility to rewrite one’s coming-into-being.”
As zombies have become part of pop culture, it should not come as surprise that zombies or zombie-like creatures have come to be represented in Japanese cinema as well. As narratives like Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2011), Big Tits Zombie (2010) and the interesting Miss Zombie (2013) imply, the concept of zombies is often given an unique (‘Japanese’) twist.
One of the latest zombie narratives to hit the silver screen is I am a Hero, an adaptation of the highly popular seinen horror manga written and drawn by Kengo Hanazawa. In the director’s seat: Shinsuke Sato, who already proved to be able to create engaging and enjoyable narratives with his diptych adaption of the sci-fi horror manga Gantz. The question is, can he turn I Am a Hero in an enjoyable narrative as well?
Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), an aspiring manga artists that once won an honorable mention at the manga newcomers’ award, seems doomed to a sad life. While he lives together with his girlfriend Tekko (Nana Katase), his struggle to realize his dream of becoming a full-time manga artist puts his relationship with her under stress.
One day, the world Hideo knows is shattered in pieces as a mysterious virus (ZQN, pronounced zokyun) starts spreading throughout Japan, turning people into super-powered murderous zombie-like creatures. Only armed with his shotgun, Hideo runs for his life.
In the beginning of the narrative, Hideo Suzuki is nothing more than an inhibited subject, a subject that has become limited by the symbolic structure, e.g. the internalized signifiers that define his place in society, and the concrete others that embody the social surface, i.e. his colleagues that solidify the place Hideo has found in society. As Hideo lacks any kind of formative speech or formative act, he, as subject, is only able to fantasize about breaking out of his subjective deadlock and hoping for his manga to be published and receive the opportunity to be serialized.
Besides showing how harsh the manga-business can be for aspiring artists, Suzuki’s societal position is “subtly” revealed by Tekko, his girlfriend, as not meeting the Japanese gender expectations of manliness, as not meeting those expectations that inform how a man should be within a relationship (psycho-note 1). The break-out of the virus disrupts the functioning of society and thus effaces the current symbolic structure Hideo as subject was stuck in. In other words, this break-out opens the possibility for him to overcome his subjective deadlock and to re-positioning himself as a different subject – a subject that acts and speaks in a formative way – within the changing symbolic structure (narra-note 1).
While the narrative touches upon familiar themes in the zombie genre, e.g. the forming of new societal structures with survivors, the danger inherent to human subjects itself, etc …, the main narrative thread of I Am a Hero is nothing other than Hideo’s struggle to redefine himself and to overcome his subjective inhibition. In this respect, one should classify this character-driven narrative as a coming-of-manliness or, in psychoanalytical terminology, as a coming into being of an “active” subject.
The narrative’s cinematography, due to its action-horror-nature, may show a preference for movement, but it is Shinsuke Sato’s firm grasp on cinematographical composition, fher empowered by Nima Fakhrara’s tense musical score, that turns I Am A Hero and Hideo’s flight (from danger) into such thrilling and exciting ride. The often subtle moving shots, i.e. shots that move in and explore the narrative space as well as shots that follow a given comportment of a character in a given space, give the narrative a pleasant fluidity, while the thoughtful infusing of fixed or near fixed shots enables the narrative to sensibly underline the menacing and disturbing nature of the zombies and to enforce the impact of sudden violent acts (cine-note 1).
I am a hero is not afraid to show the brutal impact of violence and the gore that follows from these violent acts. This gore and violence is complemented by a framing – and effects – that empowers the fearfulness of the ZQN, even if some unique ZQN’s (like the infected shopping addict, the high-jumping ZQN, and the sumo wrestling creature) sound funny on paper. Besides the effective framing of the ZQN, the narrative is also supported by appropriate performances of the supporting cast and turned into a captivating ride by Yo Ôizumi’s pitch-perfect performance – and to a lesser degree Masami Nagasawa’s performance as Yabu.
I am a Hero is an amazing cinematographical product. While some narrative threads will feel very familiar for the zombie-movie fan, I Am A Hero nevertheless succeeds in crafting a fresh and utterly thrilling narrative. Sometimes disturbing and confronting, sometimes fun, but ever engaging, the narrative underlines the influence society, the symbolic order, has on the subject, and how the collapse of a symbolic structure opens up the possibility to rewrite one’s coming into being. In other words, one of the best zombie narratives ever to be released.
Psycho-note 1: What the narrative implies about manliness should in fact not be limited to manliness. The lack of formative speech and/or acts can be problematic for any subject, be it a female subject of a male subject. Nevertheless, in Japanese society – and in other societies around the world as well – a female subject that lacks formative speech or acts was and still often is considered ‘normal’.
Cine-note 1: Furthermore, a crude movement slips in the cinematography, after Hideo’s first encounter with a ‘zombie’. In some instances one could read this crudeness as a translation of the psychological impact this new situation has on Hideo. Remark how after his second formative vocalization, the crudeness dissapeuers from the cinematographical palette.
Narra-note 1: Hideo’s first formative speech is to be situated in his promise to Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura) to protect her, while his first formative act is to be situated in the way he rescues Hiromi in the taxi. Nevertheless, it is only his second vocalization, i.e. “I’ll save you, guys”, that is truly formative and marks a change in his subjectivity.