The anti-heroine of Eiji Uchida’s black comedy Greatful Dead is not your average cinematic outsider. A perpetually upbeat yet consciously isolated urbanite, Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) has never come to terms with a traumatic childhood that saw her mother run away to help starving children in less-developed nations, thereby prompting her devastated father to fill his domestic void with a mistress. With her older sister using her boyfriend as an escape to an ‘ordinary life’, Nami is left alone and seeks solace in television shopping channels, using her father’s credit card to order items that mostly remain unopened. She seems to get a new lease of life after her father commits suicide, inheriting a small fortune that ensures she does not have to work, but financial security only serves to further enable Nami’s anti-social tendencies. Nami develops the hobby of looking for “solitarians” – citizens who have lost their minds as a result of loneliness – with two examples being an ageing salaryman who definitely bumps into people in the street in order to walk his preferred route and a mother who is still mourning the loss of her son from years before.
From this point onwards, Uchida gleefully subverts the quirky outsider protagonist often found in offbeat comedies from Japan and elsewhere. Nami very much fits the profile with her unusual childhood, voice-over narration which expresses the delight she finds in observing those who otherwise go unnoticed, and scenes of her bicycling around the city to find more “solitarians”. However, her hobby is never made to be oddly endearing: Nami does not help those she watches and actually takes pleasure in their frustrations. She even poses for a selfie with the corpse of a “solitarian” who has spent his final years binging on pornography with the aid of erectile dysfunction tablets. By keeping her distance, Nami remains a harmless voyeur, but that changes when she spots the widowed Mr. Shiomi (Takashi Sasano), an ageing former celebrity who has become angry at the public that once adored him and severed ties with his family. Nami is fascinated by this curmudgeon but becomes outraged when Mr. Shiomi develops a friendship with Christian missionary Su Yong (Kkobbi Kim) that leads him to change his reclusive ways. Enlisting the help of a particularly volatile “solitarian”, Nami proceeds to use extreme measures to force Mr. Shiomi back into his shell.
Greatful Dead moves at a brisk pace, yet Uchida and co-writer Etsuo Hiratani pack this escalating nightmare with social commentary on the dangers of self-isolation in a nation that finds individuals leading increasingly marginalized lives. The wickedness lurking behind Nami’s cheerful disposition is brought to the surface in horrifying fashion once she sets about destroying Mr. Shiomi’s newfound zest for life through violent intervention, resulting in a tense battle of wits that is punctuated with some brutal bludgeoning. Takiuchi and Sasano deliver excellent performances, finding moments of nuance even as events take an exceedingly nasty turn in the second half. Their characters find themselves on opposing spiritual journeys yet are revealed to have a crucial connection which justifies an obsession on Nami’s part that would otherwise have seemed somewhat random. While religion is often taken as an easy satirical target in contemporary cinema, Greatful Dead is keen to extoll the virtues of Christianity and the positive impact that it can have on those who have seemingly given up on the world around them, with Uchida’s emphasizing the restorative power of faith. Working on the margins enables directors to identify difficult issues that the mainstream is reluctant to confront, but independent filmmaker Uchida goes a rare step further to suggest a solution that may work for some, if not for others.
The only weakness here, and one that is telling of the film’s low budget background, is its stock classical score as Greatful Dead screams out for original compositions to complement its unique protagonists and Uchida’s skewed take on the kind of outsider who is usually an unabashedly romanticized subject. Otherwise, it’s a well-realized production that juxtaposes the mock-whimsical daylight scenes of the first half with the nighttime suspense of the second as a suburban house and its anonymous surrounding area becomes the setting for a conflict between two “solitarians” on diverging paths.
Uchida confidently juggles multiple tones throughout, eliciting a controlled mixture of gallows laughter, nervous tension and social concern. With its sudden yet seamless transition from dark comedy to deranged thriller, Greatful Dead is a genre-bending oddity that remains compassionate towards its characters while showing no mercy for the viewer when going for the jugular.