FEARNET Movie Review: 'Higanjima'


Back when the "J-Horror" movement was just getting started (and I found two or three of the flicks at every film festival I attended) I believed I just didn't like the imports' approach to the scary stuff. Raised on little more than American (and British) horror cinema for 20-some years, I mistakenly believed that The Grudge, The Eye, The Ring, and all the others were frequently ... just plain old boring. But then, sometime around Dark Water I believe, I realized that the problem was not with Japanese filmmaking, but with me. Whereas I was raised on films that pretty much HAVE to keep your attention with something scary, loud, or violent every twelve minutes, the Japanese approach to scary movies is, quite simply, more deliberate. It's not that the J-Horror flicks were dull; it was that I'm usually expecting fast-paced mayhem from a horror film. Once I was able to reconcile these (rather obvious) new beliefs, I was able to enjoy Japanese genre flicks a whole lot more.

None of that applies to the recent Japanese/Korean import Higanjima, which is a very colorful and amusing 88-minute film that's bouncing around inside a clunky 122-minute frame.

Based on the manga (comic book / graphic novel) of the same name, Higanjima is probably a lot more fun on the page than it is on the screen. It's the story of a noble young student who, along with five broadly colorful pals, join a mysterious woman on a boat ride to the island of Higanjima. The isolated island village has been overrun by vampires, you see, and it's also the location of our hero's long lost brother. Once the ditzy half-dozen arrives on the island, all sorts of nasty bloodsuckers and creepy creatures start falling out of the woodwork. Chases, scrapes, escapes, you know the matinee movie drill.

Sounds like a good bit of fun, eh? Absolutely -- provided you have the subtitles on and a fast-forward button nearby. The simplest problem with Higanjima is that of simple blather. The flick all but stops dead (on several occasions) to let its teenaged characters bicker about A) who likes whom, B) who "liiiikes" whom, and C) all sorts of randomly trivial chit-chat. Moments that would require two frames in a comic book are now afforded seven (often painful) minutes on the screen. And while each of the youthful sidekicks are affable enough, they're all written in simplistically broad brush-strokes (the horny fat kid, the dreamy bad boy, the loyal pixie gal, etc.), which makes the endless volleys of character interplay feel almost painful. Every time Higanjima delivers a nifty action scene or a gory demise, the film follows it with a virtually endless barrage of paper-thin character banter.

So the pacing is all off and the characters are way too skimpy to warrant so much cartoon-style character development -- but when Higanjima gets down to the "good stuff," there's actually some true fun to be had. Sure, the CGI isn't all that great and the vampires aren't really all that scary, but whenever the movie is focused on "showing" and not "talking," it feels a bit like 'The Monster Squad Goes to Japanese Vampire Island'. It's very broad, way too talky, and sometimes too damn goofy for its own good, but genre fans (particularly those who are familiar with the source material) will certainly be able to get behind the "good parts."

At least until a U.S. distributor offers us an 88-minute version. That one I'd probably like a whole lot more.