While there are only few directors really well known internationally, many good Japanese directors remain, for some reason, under the radar. One such director is Ten Shimoyama, who delivers narratives like Shinobi (2005) and Piece: Kioku no kakera (2012). Can he, with his latest narrative about drift-racing, persuade spectators to try out other narrative in his oeuvre?
During the second heat of the drift race between Soichiro Kobayashi (Sho Aoyagi) and Team Alive’s Ryosuke Muto (Takanori Jinnai), the latter makes a mistake and crashes his precious racing car. While Muto survives the crash, his injury means that Team Alive is without drivers to compete in races.
Koichi Oba (Shohei Nomura), a gamer obsessed with Gran Turismo, works at a car scrap yard owned by Hiyama (Moro Morooka), but lately, due to his gaming habits, some of his colleagues complain that he does not pull his weight. One day, he is approached by Ryosuke Muto’s daughter Natsumi (Ai Yoshikawa) to join Team Alive. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to do a try-out for the team.
Yet, when Natsumi introduces Oba to her father as their new driver, he gets angry – a gamer cannot be a drift racer. Yet, Natsumi tells him that, due to the poor financial state of Team Alive, he might be their only chance.
Alivehoon, as a narrative, hits all the common beats of the sports-genre … (e.g. the unexpected prodigy, element of rivalry, underdog-dynamic, training-sequences, a subtle flair of romance, … etc.). This is thus not a movie that tries to re-invent the genre, but one that makes the most of these common elements to deliver a satisfying love-letter to the art of drift racing.
The backbone of Shimoyama’s narrative is – quite unsurprisingly – the subjective change or growth of the hero. Yet, by sketching Koichi’s trajectory from gaming as a way to escape the demands of society and the others to racing as a way to inscribe oneself in the societal field, Alivehoon succeeds to highlight the importance for the subject to inscribe him/herself within the societal field, within a network of relations.
The narrative of Alivehoon is also a celebration of the passion for racing and drifting. The heart-warming beauty of this passion, a passion that fuels the team and makes drivers seek the limits of their car, is echoed within the rivalry between Kai Shibasaki (Shodai Fukuyama) and Koichi Oba. While Kai, infatuated with his own skill and talent, treats the ‘provincial’ mechanics like shit and is treated like a money-maker by his profit-obsessed boss (Anna Tsuchiya), Koichi is ultimately able to trust his team and utilize their passion for the art of drifting to gain the necessary confidence to race and drift.
The composition of Alivehoon is highly dynamic. By relying on such dynamism (Spatial, tracking, …etc.), Shimoyama does not only give his composition a pleasant energy and flow, but also ensures that the shifts between non-racing and racing moments are fluid. In drifting and racing scenes, Shimoyama pulls out all the stops. He does not only richly exploit camera movement (e.g. drone shots, …etc.) and rhythm (i.e. snappy cutting) to heighten the thrill and danger that marks high-speed racing and emphasize the focus of the drivers, but also integrates many visual decorations (e.g. slow-motion) to reveal the elegance of battling cars. In fact, most of the spectator’s enjoyment is function of Shimoyama’s thrilling framing of the drift-battles.
Even when visualizing Oba’s gaming sessions, Shimoyama employs energetic cutting and camera movement to evoke some of the tension the player feels while racing on the PlayStation, while also highlighting the coolness of gaming. In some instances, the coolness of racing and the thrill of driving – virtual as well as in real-life – finds its echo in the fitting musical pieces.
Alivehoon proves that one should not always try to re-invent a genre to delivers a thrilling love-letter to a certain sport. Shimoyama hits all the common beats of the sports-genre, but succeeds in elevating his exploration of the art of drifting by framing the battling cars in an exciting and mesmerizing way. Recommended.