Sato Shinsuke has been busy making a name for himself as a helmer of live-action manga adaptations, responsible for the likes of Gantz (2010), I Am a Hero (2015), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), and most recently, Bleach (2018). He has also just tackled another work by Gantz author Oku Hiroya, Inuyashiki, which ran from 2014 to 2017 in the bi-weekly seinen magazine, Evening. Inuyashiki (2018) explores the lives of an ageing salaryman, Inuyashiki Ichiro, and a high school student, Shishigami Hiro, whose bodies are mysteriously destroyed in an explosion and replaced with alien cybernetics. Inuyashiki uses his new abilities to help people, but Shishigami is consumed with pain and hate; a superhero showdown becomes inevitable. I’m unfamiliar with Sato’s work as a filmmaker, and the source material, so I went into this experience blind. I left thoroughly impressed.
The film stars Kinashi Noritake, a popular comedian and half of the owarai duo, Tunnels. A dominant force in television throughout the 80’s, Kinashi’s film roles are few, but he’s fantastic here as Inuyashiki, a father and husband who gets no respect and hides his own cancer diagnosis from his family. His good heart and lack of backbone make for an unlikely but inspiring hero. Opposite him is Satô Takeru, who recently played the lead role in the live-action Rurouni Kenshin films. He plays Shishigami, effortlessly alternating between cool stoicism and genuine heartache, and provides a good foil for Kinashi. Unlike countless other superhero films, Inuyashiki spends just as much time with its villain as its hero, and the film is much stronger for it.
Sato directs the film with a deft hand, exercising restraint and effective staging. His craft is so strong I was genuinely unsure if the film had a small budget and he was cleverly working around it, or if it had a massive budget and he was merely holding his cards close to his chest. As the action ramps up, it’s clearly the latter, but that just makes me appreciate the film even more. Inuyashiki will eventually build to an excessive display of CGI superhero antics, as a battle is waged throughout the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, but Sato takes his time building to that moment, earning the unrelenting spectacle of the third act. Rather than dousing audiences with the nonstop stimulus of special effects, Sato leaves a lot to the imagination, employing simple filmmaking techniques to convey otherworldly powers, carefully adjusting expectations before finally smashing them to pieces with the climax.
As an example, Sato often focuses on reaction shots during some of the transformations. When Shishigami reveals his abilities to a classmate late in the movie, the camera holds on a close-up of her face, and we only hear the sounds of moving mechanical parts on the soundtrack. Similarly, when Inuyashiki flies off through the sky and meets up with Ando (Hongô Kanata, who also provided the voice for the same role in the anime adaptation), Sato again focuses on a close-up of Ando, using only sound effects and an off-screen light source to convey that Inuyashiki has landed in the park. The film is smartly economical, and its focus on actors over special effects maintains a clear focus on the film’s dramatic arcs. And when the CGI spectacle is unleashed in full, Sato’s steady hand keeps the action coherent and ensures that even the most outlandish visual moments are structured around carefully orchestrated emotional beats.
That’s not to say the film is without its share of problems, many of which come with the territory of this genre. The massive carnage on display in the third act invites the same criticisms frequently levied at Marvel movies, for example, and their casual disregard for the loss of human life on an epic scale. Anonymous crowds are slaughtered but there is almost zero consideration given to the emotional aftermath. The third act also employs a few groan-inducing tropes, from children in peril to gotcha moments where you think a character is dead, but no, or you the think the battle is won, but surprise, the villain is still alive and now it’s time for round two. As such, the film never even tries to rise above its genre trappings, even dramatically, but these could also be considered nitpicks in an otherwise entertaining genre exercise.
The film’s ending also leaves something to be desired. I will not go into spoilers, but a large focus of the third act is on the relationship between Inuyashiki and his daughter, Mari (Miyoshi Ayaka), and Inuyashiki’s struggle to be a respected father who can provide for and protect his family. This is another element the film shares with its Western action movie counterparts, in the way the conflict between good and evil is also a struggle to maintain a moral sense of order that gets conflated with traditional social norms, including gender roles. More compelling is the generational gap between the hero and villain, a more common theme in Japanese media (this is like the inverse of Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s Dōmu), and the way Sato explores their relationship to technology; but this also settles into stereotype, even if the images of Inuyashiki crashing around Shinjuku as he attempts to control his cybernetic body and battle somebody much younger and more powerful makes for a dramatically compelling visual contrast.
There’s a mid-credit scene that attempts to offer some closure for Shishigami’s arc, but it’s a strange moment; not so much a teaser for a potential sequel, but an ambiguous conclusion that questionably ties everything together emotionally. I’m not sure what the filmmakers want us to think about Shishigami by the end. While part of the film’s success is in its grounded character drama, this is still a superhero film in which ordinary people are forced to confront themselves when granted extraordinary powers. Walking back from outlandish CGI spectacle is no simple task, and the sudden return to quaint domesticity after one character comfortably settled into the role of a mass murderer just doesn’t work.
That the film settles so comfortably into familiar genre trappings by the end is mildly disappointing, but again, the takeaway from all of this is still the impeccable craft. There’s something refreshingly classical about Sato’s approach to spectacle with Inuyashiki. The way he takes the time to build the world and characters, establishing a baseline of normalcy for the ensuing fantastical events, while also carefully building the spectacle through glimpses and teases and clever, basic filmmaking techniques, is admirable. This is a superhero story where one of the most intense sequences in the whole film is Shishigami simply pointing a finger at his father. Inuyashiki is lowkey one of the best cinematic spectacles of the year.