Sometimes a film just ... appears. It may be coming from your favorite director, it may have been in the works for quite a while, all the people around you probably know about it already and yet, somehow it simply slipped by. And one day it's just there. No teasers and trailers, no waiting for cinema releases or DVD releases and no subtitle worries. This really is the best kind of surprise. Enter Hiroyuki Tanaka's Miss Zombie, quite possibly the best zombie film I've ever seen.
Actor/director Tanaka (Kofuku no Kane, Monday, Kanikosen) has always been able to balance his signature style with commercial goals. Even though his notoriety in the West is limited to film festivals, his films are actually pretty accessible to a broader audience. His previous feature, Usagi Drop, was probably one of his most commercial to date, to even things out it seems Tanaka went on to direct Miss Zombie, no doubt one of his least accessible film so far.
To be honest though, I've grown tired of the whole zombie genre. There are so many zombie films out there, all conforming to the same set of rules with a minimum of variation, that I feel I'm completely over-saturated. I've seen slow zombies and fast zombies. Zombie outbreaks and zombie apocalypses. American zombies, Taiwanese zombies, Italian zombies. I've seen rabid zombies, hungry zombies and smart zombies. I've seen them appear in horror films, comedies, action films and animation films. Hell, they even made it into a teen romance. But I never saw a film quite like Miss Zombie.
Tanaka delivers a zombie arthouse drama. With a minimum of gore and action he explores the relationship between a family and Sara, their pet zombie. Set in an alternate reality, people are trying to domesticate low-level zombies. While still dangerous, these zombies are mostly docile (when kept away from meat) and are used as slaves to help out with chores around the house. But with a submissive zombie freely walking around the premises, it doesn't take very long before things run out of hand. Just don't expect to see a lot of kills, the terror here is more of the emotional kind.
Miss Zombie is stylistically perfect. Then again, if not perfection, what did you expect from cinematographer Daisuke Soma (Heruta Sukeruta. The polished black and white photography is nothing less than jaw-dropping. Lighter scenes are luminous and bright, darker scenes are menacing and eerie. Yet Tanaka always finds the right balance and contrast to keep the images clear and visible. The camera work is slow and deliberate, the editing subdued, safe a few more action-oriented sequences. There's no grain or room for imperfections here, which forms a nice contrast with the actual events that happen on screen.
The soundtrack too is spot on. Tanaka makes good use of repeating sound snippets (like the sound of Sara scrubbing the floor) to create a brooding, laden atmosphere. The sparse musical interludes are strong, but in the end the perfectly timed individual sounds (like the chilling horn) make the biggest impression. While this genre of music is quite new for Tanaka, I wasn't particularly surprised he was able to use it to such good effect, as his soundtracks have always been highlights in his films.
And the cast too performs perfectly. Toru Tezuka is his creepy self as head of the family, Ayaka Komatsu embodies the obedient yet strong-willed Sara. But surprisingly it's Makoto Togashi who impresses the most. She forms the key to the unfolding drama as the guardian of the family, transforming from good-natured housewife to protector of everyone who's dear to her. At the very beginning of the film I also caught a glimpse of Tomorowo Taguchi as one of the movers, but since I can't find any confirmation on the web that might have just been my imagination.
Some people will no doubt be put off by the pacing of Miss Zombie. It's definitely a slow burner, with many repetitive scenes and actions, especially during the first half of the film. It takes more than 30 minutes before all the pawns are in the right place, but every scene, every move is both deliberate and necessary for the build-up to the finale. Once it picks up steam it never falls back, propelling itself to an inevitable climax that left me perplexed and impressed.
The presence of Sara puts Miss Zombie firmly into zombie territory, but apart from its titular character it shares very little with other zombie flicks. It's sure to disappoint a few zombie fanatics who ended up watching this without knowing what to expect, but people who've grown tired of the grovelling undead may find a welcome reinvigoration of the genre. It may not be Tanaka's absolute best (that title is still reserved for Kofuku no Kane), but Miss Zombie comes damn close. I'm delighted to see Japanese directors return to these kind of projects and hope Tanaka sets an example for his peers.