03rd Sep2015

Frightfest 2015: ‘Over Your Dead Body’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Ko Shibasaki, Hideaki Ito, Hitomi Katayama, Ebizo Ichikawa, Maiko, Toshie Negishi, Miho Nakanishi, Hiroshi Katsuno, Ikko Furuya | Written by Kikumi Yamagishi | Directed by Takashi Miike

over-your-dead-body-2

Time to fess up: I don’t know all that much about Japanese folklore. Knowing the source material for an artwork that leans heavily on popular cultural institutions isn’t a requirement when viewing said art, mind. I was hardly aware of the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter before seeing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya earlier this year but still managed to be transfixed by the beauty and sweet melancholy of that particular story all the same – though I am sure extra nuggets of meaning could be sifted from that film were I to read up on its origins.

Unfortunately for Over Your Dead Body, the latest in a long line of brutal but thematically complex psychological horrors from controversial auteur Takashi Miike, I felt like I needed a road map by the end. The film revolves around the on- and off-stage dramatics during the rehearsals for a new production of Yotsuya Kaidan, a Japanese ghost story.

The lead actress Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) is having an affair with her male counterpart Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa), as we learn from an opening sex scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Mann picture; all cool blue lighting, undulating backs and bodies coming together gracefully…I swear I even heard some smooth jazz playing, if only in my mind. This scene, fairly standard by modern mores, seems like a sexual revolution when compared with those at the theatre and outside Miyuki’s apartment, suggesting a lack of feeling that can only be restored during the act of lovemaking.

Miyuki and Kosuke’s trysts appear to be a secret (or simply of little interest) to the other cast and crew, though other actors lust after them respectively. These are, after all, people in the business of obscuring the truth. Interestingly, large portions of Over Your Dead Body take place on the immaculately dressed revolving stage on which the play is to be performed. Miike puts the camera over the threshold between the actors and ever-present audience, treating it like a 1940s film set while the performers enact several scenes at a time. Yotsuya Kwaidan appears to involve a wandering samurai who takes up an offer from a rich man to marry his young daughter and gain lucrative employment. The only catch is that he’s already married with a child…

These scenes play out with exquisite, precise beauty, the characters exhibiting heightened emotions and enacting terrible deeds, and it’s only when the actors break (Kosuke once accidentally kicks a kneeling Miyuki for real) that we remember the mundanity and long stretches of inconsequential silence that accompany real life. The couple’s relationship quickly sours as Kosuke starts playing away, life imitating art in ways that become stranger and stranger as the film goes on.

A master at hinting at a menace just around the corner but mostly unseen, Miike (and his screenwriter Kimuki Yamagishi) build up the dread methodically with little payoff until a series of gruesome set-pieces near the end, a blood-soaked evocation of the play’s themes and an utterly pessimistic metaphor for the sacrifices and unfulfilled desires inherent in many heterosexual relationships. Be warned; this is not a film for new couples.

While thematically rich and largely wonderful to view, Over Your Dead Body takes rather a long time to state its case; there was certainly some restless shuffling during the 10.30 am screening I attended. Worse than that, the film possesses a cold, somewhat cynical vibe that will be familiar to fans of the director’s previous horror outings but doesn’t much suit a story that asks its audience to spend most of their time inside its characters’ heads.

*** 3/5

Over Your Dead Body had its UK premiere at FrightFest 2015 on Saturday 29th August.

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