I'd had low expectations of this, based on my Darwinian theory of cinema. It was hard to find, which suggested that people weren't interested in watching it.
In the end, though, it's not that bad. It has major problems, but it's interesting and by no means a write-off. Its biggest problem, like School Day of the Dead
or Isola: Multiple Personality Girl
, is that it tends to get mistakenly labelled as J-horror. This isn't a ridiculous category error, since it is after all a moderately dark movie about psychic powers, killers, conspiracies and so on, but it does mean that the people most likely to watch it are horror fans, who'll then be disappointed.
In fact it's based on a novel called Crossfire, by Miyuki Miyabe, which has also been adapted into mobile phone manga. (No, I didn't know they existed either.)
Anyway, the story. Our heroine is played by Akiko Yada and she has mental powers that we'll describe as pyrokinesis. We first meet her as a very small girl, killing an unpleasant boy. Her mother protects her, but also insists that from now on she must do everything she can to avoid anger, hatred and friends. Fun childhood she's going to have. Anyway, this girl grows up to be nice enough, but with a shell between herself and the world. Unfortunately there appears to be a serial killer around, while on top of that Yada's about to meet a handsome man who likes her.
That's the start of the story, but there's lots more plot to come. (My jaw dropped when I glanced at a clock and realised I was only halfway through.) This isn't a short film and it needs all of that running time to cram in all of its implausibilities. Miyuki Miyabe is a popular author, but that leads me to suspect that this isn't a particularly deft adaptation, because it's making her plotting look a bit stupid.
1. We have the world's most improbable serial killers, who come across like university students during Rag Week and as good as confess their crimes to all and sundry, but can't be prosecuted because one of them got his forehead playfully slapped and is now complaining of police brutality. Uh-huh.
2. We have policemen who stop going after these killers and instead start researching psychic phenomena.
3. We have three psychics, all with different powers. Theoretically this one shouldn't be a showstopper since we'd accepted the basic premise when we saw the film's title, but they still manage to make it look implausible when another psychic shows up.
4. One of the main characters turns out to be the brother of the boy Yada killed all those years ago.
The weird thing is though that Miyabe's got most of these points covered. Eventually you'll see that it makes sense. The coincidence of #4 is still a coincidence, but this story isn't as goofy as the film's made it look. Unfortunately that's of a piece with any scene in which a man confesses his feelings to Yada, in which the music starts playing and the movie turns into a TV drama.
That's the main downside. There's also another in the TV-level performances and I'd bet my boots that some of these entities also sing in a band, but there's one good actress here in Kaori Momoi. She plays the middle-aged policewoman in charge of this case and she's easily the best thing in the film. She attended the British Royal Academy of Dance for three years, she's also a jewel designer and she wrote and directed Ichijiku no kao in 2006. Sounds like an interesting person. The film's best laugh comes when she and one of her colleagues are discussing a tricky professional point. "I've known you 27 years and that's the dumbest thing you've ever said."
Yada has a nice line in non-verbal acting beats, though.
Nevertheless the film is interesting. Despite all of the above, it sort of works. It's teetering and it might fall either way for any given audience member, but I could usually believe in the characters and the story has a theme. It's about killing. Yada is a lethal weapon. That's her defining feature. She's spent all her life hiding from herself, but when bad things happen, she eventually decides it's time to kill. So far, so predictable. That's the formula of any number of schlock exploitation flicks. Where the film departs from expectation is the way it seriously engages with the issue, giving us supporting characters who embody the opposing point of view and villains who embody its dangers.
I also have a soft spot for the characters. Those killers I mentioned aren't believable, but one thing they are is raging cocks. The scene where one of them's being interrogated by the police on a murder charge will make you want to reach into the screen and slap him yourself. Then you've got a despicable son of a bitch who turns up in the third act and takes the plot by the scruff of its neck. It took me a while to get a handle on what kind of scum he was, but by the end he'd become one of the more memorable movie villains I've seen. It also helps that the finale's surprising and stronger than I'd expected.
Thinking about it, I'm pretty sure that the original novel was better than this film. All the stuff I like is fundamental, while all the dodgy stuff is just the adaptation getting it wrong. Dig down beneath that and you'll get a story with meat on it and a more interesting portrayal of what it's like to be a pyrokinetic than the usual comic-book superheroes, e.g. Pyro, the Human Torch. Yada isn't fully in control of herself, either emotionally or in terms of her powers. She's capable of going off the deep end, such as in the scene where she torches a stranger's car, but that scene's also cool. Overall, this is a flawed movie, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as a bad one. On the contrary, I rather like it and there's more going on here than I'd have found in the J-horror retread I'd been expecting. I have no interest in following up its director's filmography, but I'm mildly curious about Miyuki Miyabe.
I liked their bulgy spontaneous combustion special effect, by the way. That was fun.
Random fact: the word "pyrokinetic" was invented by Stephen King in his novel Firestarter, but apparently it would have made slightly more sense for him to stick "pyro" onto the "tele" of "telekinesis". Wouldn't sound as good, though.