Following a lengthy absence from filmmaking, Isn’t Anyone Alive? marks the much-anticipated return of Sogo Ishii, the rebellious auteur responsible for such cult favourites as Burst City (1982) and Electric Dragon 80.000 V (2001), although the director has recently changed his name and now prefers to go by the moniker of Gakuryu Ishii. In a career that now spans more than three decades, Ishii has managed to stay relevant, at least amongst devoted aficionados of alternative Japanese cinema, by predicting sub-culture trends that sometimes unite movements in film and music in a unique fashion. Crazy Thunder Road (1980) was a film school graduation project about violent biker gangs which secured a theatrical release, while Burst City was set in a dystopian future with a cast comprised of punk bands, and Electric Dragon 80.000 V concerned two social misfits with special electro-conductive powers. Ishii can play it relatively straight, as evidenced by his taut psychological thriller Angel Dust (1994), but the director has mostly enjoyed a productive career on the popular margins by creating alternative landscapes on threadbare budgets, pioneering a visual style that has often been described as cyberpunk, even though Burst City was released long before the term was coined and entered the cultural lexicon. Compared to the highly stylised visuals of Burst City and Electric Dragon 80.000 V, which remain Ishii’s most well-known films internationally, Isn’t Anyone Alive? is an almost meditative undertaking, albeit one that serves to update the commentary on vacuous youth that was integral to his breakthrough features, with leather-clad nihilists supplanted by upwardly mobile students.
The premise of Ishii’s comeback project would be suitable for a horror film, if the director were not so fond of absurdist comedy: at a rather sterile university campus that is located near a medical facility, students and members of staff suddenly start dying without explanation. As in most films that involve an ‘outbreak’ which threatens the existence of mankind, Isn’t Anyone Alive? begins by showing a day that is much like any other, with various characters being introduced, some of whom are dealing with personal problems. Two students try to decide on how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy that has resulted from a brief fling, a visitor tries to find the hospital employee on whom he has a crush, and urban legends are discussed to pass the time. When the dying starts, there are rumours of a biotech experiment at the hospital, although a doctor firmly dismisses such stories as nonsense before also succumbing to whatever is steadily wiping out everyone in sight. Isn’t Anyone Alive? is episodic in structure due to Ishii’s cross-cutting between different social groups or pairings, with the occasional bouts of mugging on the part of less capable ensemble players threatening to turn the film into a particularly esoteric sketch comedy. Adapting a play by Shiro Maeda, the director does little to open-up the piece, mostly framing the gradual demise of humanity in static set-ups, but does build to an apocalyptic finale as coffee shop waiter Keisuke (Shota Sometani) witnesses the chaos beyond the campus.
Isn’t Anyone Alive? has polarised specialist critics, with Chris MaGee placing it in his Japan Society top ten list for 2012 and praising, ‘the power of the film’s morbid humour’, while Tom Mes of Midnight Eye selected it as his worst film of the year on the grounds that he expected, ‘better from Sogo Ishii, whose name change sadly has not stopped the downward trajectory of the quality of his films.’ This reviewer found Isn’t Anyone Alive? to be neither fish nor fowl, a film that is amusing, confusing and disquieting, often within the same scene, but remains stuck at the idea stage, rarely succeeding in prompting the existential debate that was presumably intended. Music is still an important Ishii element, with punk or heavy metal replaced by angst-ridden indie anthems or head-nodding electro beats, while a late image of a plane falling steadily from the late afternoon sky to the accompaniment of a jangling rock track is more memorable than the extended deadpan banter or juvenile histrionics that have preceded it. Yet the film is strangely effective in its speculation of how the Japanese youth of today would react to such a crisis, with some students looking on with curiosity rather than concern as their classmates pass away, only to break into panic upon realising that they are about to depart the mortal realm, and that their cell phones are no longer of any use. It’s these moments that may endear the generational satire of Is Anyone Alive? to a curious audience beyond Ishii completists.
Isn’t Anyone Alive? is currently on UK DVD via Third Window Films: