REVIEW: DVD Release: Tokyo Gore School

Film: Tokyo Gore School
Release date: 16th August 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 109 mins
Director: Yohei Fukuda
Starring: Masato Hyûgaji, Takafumi Imai, Kenta Itogi, Shinwa Kataoka, Kôhei Kuroda
Genre: Action/Drama/Martial Arts/Mystery
Studio: Manga
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

With the name Tokyo Gore School, you'd be forgiven for thinking Yohei Fukuda's second feature film to be a gore-fest like the similarly-named Tokyo Gore Police. But, unlike that 2008 effort, this has something rather more topical at its core than rampaging, blood-thirsty mutants.

Handsome, popular, and with a cold streak essential for survival in the ruthless, bully-ridden school in which he is a student, Hayato Fujiwara is sure of academic success. Until, in tandem with the passing of a controversial educational act, his fellow students suddenly begin to behave aggressively towards him.

While on the run, Fujiwara gradually discovers that the source of the violence is a mysterious new cyber game, which blackmails students into preying on their contemporaries in order to keep their own reputations clean. And with a secret that could crush all of his ambitions, Fujiwara has no choice but to fight...

With a title suggestive more of Lloyd than Charlie Kaufman, you would not expect Tokyo Gore School to be an especially intellectually taxing affair, particularly when considering its obvious association with the 2008 shock exploitation movie, Tokyo Gore Police. However, the key themes do exist within the premise for the end result to be of substantial sociological significance: cyber-bulling, the necessity for status, youth in revolt, etc. It is a shame, then, that the film is not quite the sum of its parts, whether director Yohei Fukuda acknowledges that or not. Which is not to make the suggestion that Tokyo Gore School should be judged solely on its levels of intellect, simply that its early attempts to channel through its protagonist a stream of philosophical observations about society promise something more fulfilling and more comprehensible than the repetitive series of chase and fight scenes that seem to make up the bulk of the film's running time.

Online social networks play an important part in Tokyo Gore School, with the ‘game’ played by the students through their mobile phones, which, thanks to the game's creators, adopt radar capabilities, as well as (somehow) access to the fellow competitors' personal details. Most importantly of all, the mobiles have the ability to reveal the players' deepest and most embarrassing secrets, which they must protect from exposure by playing and winning the game. Despite the lack of explanation about just how such secrets are obtained, Fukuda's decision to use the threat of public humiliation as the motivation for the students' violent behaviour seems, at times, an inspired one, forging an amusing metaphor for the social anxieties suffered in school, and the exaggerated response of the students to the potential embarrassment. At the beginning of the film, Fujiwara says to a member of staff, when discussing a fellow students' humiliating experience: "To adults it might seem trivial, but to us it is everything" - effectively establishing the rational for the melodramatic madness to follow.

Comparisons between Tokyo Gore School and the 2000 film Battle Royale are inevitable and, in many cases, logical: both films are based around the idea of a nation so disillusioned by its youth that its government is forced into taking drastic action to bring them to order. They're also both interested in dealing with conflicts within the social hierarchy established in school and how that can is affected when license to engage physically with one another is granted. The crucial difference, however, is that Battle Royale is a film far more comfortable in its own skin than Fukuda's urban-based effort, which fails to emulate the same consistency of tone - Battle Royale retains a satirical joviality throughout the dreadful scenario, which delivers the film from po-faced literality - as well as the same basic effectiveness of storytelling, with Tokyo Gore School introducing the rules of the game in an awkward, staggered fashion rather than choosing to lay it all out at the beginning (something done to great effect in Kinji Fukasaku's cult hit).

In fact it seems that the rules of the games are made up along the way by Fukuda, whose main interest appears to be getting to the next fight, with even the verbal interactions pushing the limits of believability by so regularly devolving into violence not befitting a film which suggests regularly - with Fujiwara's thoughts on the philosophies of life and concerns about being "a winner" in society - its ambition to be a legitimate social commentary. But, while the novelty of it does wear thin, the action is at least honest about what it is trying to achieve, with the fights involving lengthy if not particularly elaborate demonstrations of free-running, as well as hand-to-hand combat choreographed effectively alongside a bleeping techno soundtrack sure to appeal to those with a penchant for adrenaline. It is not unreasonable, even, to suggest that the Tokyo portrayed in the film is not so much meant to be a stark world but rather more an appealing one for the younger generation on which it is based, with a complete absence of adults allowing for a freedom of the city to do battle unhindered.

There are a couple of decent showings to be found from the cast of unknowns and when the film does slow down enough to allow for some verbal interaction, the gritty camerawork and ruddy urban landscape lend weight to the rawness of the performances. J-Pop star Yusuke Yamada is competent enough to negotiate the more brooding scenes, and when it comes to the final, emotional crunch, he ventures from his comfort zone to adequate effect. But it is Masanori Mizuno, playing the Minister of Education's son, who is the most impressive, morphing his character from self-righteous protector to ranting coward in a performance rather beyond his years. Though this ultimately serves to make all the more disappointing the fact that the film does not get the most out of its assets, wasting the actors at its disposal as well as the interesting themes it chooses to touch upon but never thoroughly, convincingly engages.

While an effectively stylish and amusingly exaggerated view of schoolyard politics, Yohei Fukuda's Tokyo Gore School lacks the balance to make it either a relevant social commentary or convincing satire. And while the fight scenes at times thrill, they are repeatedly undermined by the feeling that, in a more stable context, the whole thing would have performed above the expectations set by its unofficial predecessor Tokyo Gore Police. DWS

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