January 03, 2012

Sky High (2003)

After spending some years making independent projects with limited budget, Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura became a household name after the international success of his epic mix of action and horror titled "Versus" back in the year 2000. The recognition earned by "Versus" allowed Kitamura to keep displaying his talent in action films like "Alive" and "Aragami", movies where he continued demonstrating his fresh and very dynamic style clearly influenced by the Japanese comic books (Mangas). Kitamura's style would reach a peak in his epic "Azumi", a martial arts film based in the manga of the same name, which could be considered as a masterpiece of his style. "Azumi" that many of his followers consider a masterpiece. After "Azumi", Kitamura directed several chapters of the popular TV series "Sukai hai", a tale of fantasy and horror also based on a manga. In the meantime, Kitamura directed a movie to serve as a prequel to "Sukai hai": an action film titled simple "Sky High" (the English name of the TV series).

"Sky High" is the story of detective Kohei Kanzaki (Shosuke Tanihara) and his bride Mina Saeki (Yumiko Shaku), and how their lives get shattered when on the day of their wedding, Mina is brutally killed by the mysterious serial killer that Kanzaki was trying to arrest, a criminal who removes the hearts of his victims. Now, Mina goes to the Gate of Rage, the place where the souls of all the murdered people go to make an important choice: whether to go to Heaven and expect the next rebirth, return to the Earth as a ghost, or to curse the killer and go to hell with him. Mina has 12 days to decide, but in the meantime, she decides to attempt to help Kanzaki to regain sanity, as Kanzaki is now decided to kill the assassin even if that means going to Hell for his sin. While this happens, Kanzaki has not only discovered the identity of the killer, but also the purpose: the killers need to obtain six hearts from the Guardians of the Gateway of the Afterlife to open the Gate of Rage.

As written above, "Sky High" was conceived as a prequel to the TV series "Sukai hai", so Kitamura's "Sky High" is basically the introduction to the extensive plot of "Sky High", the manga by Tsutomu Takahashi. The screenplay, by Kitamura's regular collaborator Isao Kiriyama, starts off with Kanzaki's attempt for revenge over Mina's death, but also spends its time focusing on Mina's own story at the Gates of Rage, as she contemplates what to choose for her afterlife. In this way the two main "genres" are defined, with Mina's side being more a fantasy horror story while Kanzaki's works like a crime thriller, complete with twists and turns as the main villain's identity and motivations are revealed. To this effect, Kiriyama's script is very well detailed and spends a good time into developing its characters and establishing the concepts that become familiar in the TV series. Nevertheless, behind the violence and horror, "Sky High" is a tale of romance, and it's this emotional aspect is what sets it apart.

As expected, once again Kitamura displays his mastery of the visual flare as the film is filled with his trademark energetic camera-work and remarkably done action set-pieces. Kitamura gives flesh to Kiriyama's screenplay in the same way as if he was drawing a comic book, giving chance to his imagination to fly by keeping true to the essence of the "Sky High" story. While "Sky High" is considerably less violent graphically than Kitamura's previous films "Versus" and "Azumi", this choice fits the stylish concept of the film, as despite all the visual eye-candy, it remains focused on the relationship between its two main characters, and an excess in gore would feel out of place. In fact, this focus on the characters is the film's greatest strength, as it allows to give more consistence to the fantastic situations the characters live, and give meaning to their actions. In "Sky High", Kitamura succeeds in balancing out the action and the romance in a natural and believable way, without sacrificing one element to benefit the other.

The cast ranges from average to very good, and this divergence in quality is certainly one thing that lessens the power of "SKy High". Nevertheless, for the most part it could be said that "Sky High" has a mostly effective cast. Leading the cast, Yumiko Shaku delivers a pretty good performance as Mina, and proves to be a good dramatic actress, not only a pretty face. However, her action scenes seemed a bit weaker when compared to other actors in the film. Shosuke Tanihara, who plays the tortured detective Kanzaki delivers the best acting of the movie, as he carries the film with a great attitude and a believable delivery of the part. It wouldn't be wrong to call Tanihara's performance the true heart of the film. Finally, Kitamura's regular collaborator Takao Osawa is excellent as the mysterious Tatsuya Kudo. As written above, the rest of the cast is mostly good, but nothing really spectacular, although the action scenes are excellently choreographed and performed.

While certainly "Sky High" has many of Kitamura's trademarks to its full potential, it's unfortunately not one of his masterpieces, as it contains a great deal of the usual flaws in Kitamura's cinema. As beautiful as it is in visual terms, "Sky High" is a bit overlong, mainly due to the excessive detail that writer Kiriyama gives to the story. Unlike "Azumi" (also scripted by Kiriyama), where the epic approach of the story suited a long and detailed script, "Sky High" relatively more intimate story feels unnecessarily long, and at times it seriously drags a lot. Perhaps a better work of editing or more concise scriptwriting could had improved the film a bit, as it would seem that the film gets a bit lost in the creation of its own mythology. Perhaps it's that "Sky High" seems to take itself too seriously at times, or perhaps Kiriyama tried too hard to synthesize the world of "Sukai hai" in the film. Anyways, despite its problems, "Sky High" is by no means a bad film, just perhaps one certainly that could had been a lot more.

In the end, Ryûhei Kitamura's "Sky High" is a very recommended movie, not only for die hard Kitamura fans, but for those with a taste for intelligent action films. The touches of horror and fantasy give the story a lot more depth and make it stand out among the many martial arts movies out there. It certainly offers an interesting and thought-provoking view on the after life, and contains several set pieces that display the remarkable talent for visuals that director Ryûhei Kitamura has. While a bit too long, "Sky High" is actually a very good, albeit flawed, film that can deliver great entertainment when watched on the right mood. It's certainly a fine introduction to "Sukai hai", which is probably what its producers intended in the first place.


No comments: