Japan Cuts Review: The Big Gun/Metamorphosis (Henge)


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

The Big Gun and Metamorphosis (henceforth referred to as Henge) were shown at NYAFF/Japan Cuts (it was a co-presentation) as the final two segments of The Atrocity Exhibition, having been preceded by Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club. That one was the odd film out, having been made by a different director and being of dramatically lesser quality. For those reasons, it got its own review. But because The Big Gun and Henge were made by the same director are both short (31 and 54 minutes respectively), I felt it was appropriate to lump them together into a review the way they were lumped together at the screening.

It sure was an interesting screening.

The Atrocity Exhibition: The Big Gun / Metamorphosis (Dai Kenju | 大拳銃 / Henge | へんげ)
Directors: Hajime Ohata
Rating: NR
Country: Japan 

The Big Gun revolves around two brothers who own a metal-shop are commissioned to make a number of handguns from scratch by a shady character who keeps postponing his payment. He continues to request larger orders, but let’s think about this logically. Shady business is shady business, and asking people to make guns for you and then not paying them seems like a bad idea, doesn’t it? Well, it is. And that’s where the big gun comes into play.

Henge tells the story of Yoshiaki Kadota (Kazunari Aizawa) and his wife, Keiko (Aki Morita). Yoshiaki has been having strange things happen to him for quite a while, night terrors and bizarre seizures/spasms which have forced him into the hospital at various points. It’s not entirely clear what the timeline for the issues have been, but eventually it comes to a head when Yoshiaki begins to transform into a flesh-eating monster. Things escalate from there, and all kinds of crazy things start happening to the couple. People start dying, then more people die, and it goes completely insane by the end.

Aki Morita, Kazunari Aizawa, and Teruhiko Nobukuni in Henge by Hajime Ohata

Both of the films have a similar sort of progression. Things start off relatively slow (The Big Gun much moreso than Henge), then they start to ramp up and up, and then things start exploding. When things start exploding, everything becomes awesome, and then they end. They’re short, sweet, and mostly to the point. Had either of them been any longer, I think everything would have completely fallen apart, but as it stands they can thrive due to their length. There is no question that things don’t always make sense. Nobody really has any kind of backstory, and the motivations are simplistic at best, but it doesn’t matter. Something interesting is never more than a few minutes away, so you don’t have time to get bogged down with those kinds of thoughts.

Technically speaking, the films are a mixed bag. The Big Gun looks like a student film, but as far as I can tell, it actually was. The only company named in the credits is the Film School of Tokyo, so that’s my logical conclusion. But it’s really ugly, and not even presented in widescreen. That being said, I am more willing to accept its ugliness than I was with Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club because it’s older. The Big Gun is from 2008, which was before the low-budget digital revolution really took hold. I always find it interesting to see what filmmakers on a budget come up with when they try to do grand special effects like explosions and decapitated heads. The Big Gun certainly wouldn’t win any awards for its effects, but they’re enjoyable to watch nonetheless. 

The Big Gun short film by Hajime Ohata

Henge is much higher quality. In fact, most of the time it looks pretty decent. Perhaps that is a function of watching it after two very poor looking bits, but I didn’t really have a problem with the general look of Henge. What I did have a problem with was its use of CGI. For the most part, instead of using blood packets and the like, the blood splatters are made up from the most generic and terrible looking CG splatters I have ever seen. There was no attempt to make them actually fit inside the universe, and that’s a real shame. I imagine most of the budget went to making Yoshiaki’s monster suit, which is gloriously rubbery and got more than a couple of laughs from the audience, as well as the miniatures used in the final scene. If I had to choose between quality  blood and those miniatures, though, I would undoubtedly choose the miniatures.

What sets Henge apart from other monster movies is the fact that it plays out, for the most part, like an exorcism film. The seizures that Yoshiaki has have him contorting his body in strange ways and speaking in dead languages, and there is even an attempt at excising the demon/monster/whatever from his body. I don’t know if this was intended to throw people off track and make them think they were watching one kind of thing before bringing out the big rubber monster, but it definitely gives the whole thing a unique feel that I enjoyed.

Aki Morita in Henge by Hajime Ohata

It’s interesting to watch The Big Gun and Henge back to back, because it allows you to see the growth of Hajime Ohata as a director. Although The Big Gun has a really amazing ending, Henge is a better production (and has an even better one). Some better camera equipment does a lot to make something seem more professional, but it goes beyond that. The man clearly has some interesting ideas, and he is not afraid to make things that look a little silly in order to get them across. The fact that Henge turns a bit away from real effects for something that should be pretty simple (blood) makes me sad and has me worried for a time when his budget would allow him to go more heavily CG, but the ending gives me hope that there is still more he can and will do with practical effects.

I definitely think that, despite their many flaws, both The Big Gun and Henge are worth watching if you can get your hands on them, if for no other reason than to see their crazy endings. They are awesome, and the ending of Henge made pulled me out of the funk that I was in thanks to Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club, which The Big Gun wasn’t quite able to do (but it got me part of the way there). Even if you don’t watch either of these films, though, you should keep an eye on Hajime Ohata. I don’t know that he’ll ever make a legitimately “great” movie, but I can definitely see him developing a devoted cult following, and if his filmmaking continues to improve (as it should), that following will be well deserved.