Takashi Miike, the man that never ceases to surprise. Even after spewing more than 70 films in 25 years time, even after after crossing over into the "mainstream", he still manages to direct films that are as weird and unique as anything found in the indie and/or arthouse scenes. As the Gods Will [Kamisama no Iu Tori] is one his latest efforts and once again isn't like anything you've seen before. I suggest you sit back, go in blank and let the film wash over you, because there's little else you can do to prepare for Miike's latest.
If you check the reviews this film's been getting you'll notice that just about every single one mentions Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While a very (very) feeble connection exists between these films, it's hardly a relevant comparison. You could just as well reference Saw or any one of its copies if you start going down that path. Personally I'd rather describe the film as mix between Raia Gamu, Shinboru and Gantz, but ultimately it's just one of those film you just need to experience yourself.
Not all of the weirdness in As the Gods Will can be attributed to Miike though, the film is actually based on a manga by the same name. I haven't read the series myself so I can't really vouch for how close the film stays to its source material, but judging by his earlier adaptations I think it's safe to say that Miike added his own layer of insanity. At the very least Miike is the ideal person to bring the ideas and concepts of the manga to the big screen, as I'm sure there are few other directors who could make a film like this work.
Context and background story are sparse as the film dives right into the events. We get a full minute of character introduction, then the fun (read killing) starts. A group of high school kids find themselves trapped in a series of 'do or die' games. Either they participate and beat the challenges laid before them or they die a horrible death. After the first two games the winners are transported to a mysterious white cube hanging over Tokyo, where they are teamed up with the winners of neighboring schools. Doesn't make any sense you say? I agree, but that's besides the point.
None of the adversaries are human, instead the kids have to fight a range of mythical creatures and well-known children's toys. There's a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko and a carved wooden polar bear (among others). All the adversaries are CG and while noticeably so, the effect is far less jarring than you may expect. The polar bear in particular is superbly animated, with his sudden movements and extreme facial expressions giving him a very unique and peculiar presence. Production values are high and Miike regular Nobuyasu Kita does an excellent job with the cinematography, opting for clear and well-lit visuals rather going for a darker and grimmer look which is often first choice for similarly themed films.
The soundtrack is a little better than usual for a Miike film. There are still quite a few filler tracks, but there are also a couple of fun and crazy choices that underline the light-hearted atmosphere of the film. Bright and uplifting tracks that are often in contrast with the things happening on screen (I guess the Battle Royale comparison comes in handy after all). The voice acting of the adversaries too is notable, with pitched voices accompanying their childish looks. The effect is rather silly, even humorous, but that's exactly what Miike's aiming at.
The cast is decent enough for a bunch of Japanese high school kids, but as a group they're maybe a little too generic and slick-looking. It's made up of popular stereotypes, featuring the nerd, the loud-mouth, the crazy guy and the somewhat plain-looking hero attracting the attention of multiple girls. Clear manga stereotypes that Miike kept intact. There's a somewhat random cameo by Nao Omori (still not sure why his character was included) and a notable appearance by Riri Furanki, but their parts are too small to have a big impact on the overall quality of the cast.
It's really difficult to label a film like As the Gods Will. Lots of people get killed in rather gruesome ways, but I would't call it a horror film. The atmosphere is fun, humorous and light-hearted, but it isn't quite a comedy either. There are sci-fi elements but they are never really explored. It plays like a thriller, but it isn't really tense enough nor does it try to be. In the end, mystery is the label that fits the film best, even when it might give people the wrong idea about As the Gods Will.
What struck me as most surprising was the complete lack of any form of explanation. These kids are kidnapped and subjected to childish games with lethal outcome, going from challenge to challenge, meeting up with the strangest characters and there's not even the slightest attempt to explain why all of this is happening. It just is and that's that. From what I understand the manga doesn't offer much in the way of an explanation either, but to see that translated to a big budget movie adaptation is quite the stunner.
As the Gods Will is a typical Miike flick in the sense that it's pretty much pointless to compare it to other films out there. It's a film that resides in a universe of its own, it's not really bound to genres nor is it restrained by classic film laws. It's just incredibly fun and entertaining, serving up slices of madness at an incredible rate. And since it's a recent Miike film it means that the production values match its grand ideas, making it one of the most implausible mainstream films I've seen in a long time. After all these years Miike is still going strong. It's almost scary to think that if all goes well he's only halfway through his career. I don't mind though, one can never have enough films like As the Gods Will.