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‘Henge’

Not all movies about transformation are for kids

by Mark Schilling

Movie trailers and TV commercials both exist to sell, but unlike ads for toothpaste or instant ramen, trailers offer a direct experience, however manipulated, with the actual product. So websites that post links to trailers are not just shilling for distributors, but also offering their visitors, always hungry for tidbits about upcoming films, a wanted service — one I take advantage of myself.

And some trailers, such as the one for Hajime Ohata’s zero-budget shocker “Henge,” are minor works of art, with a life almost independent of the films they are plugging. The trailer for “Henge” (“Metamorphosis”) is a procession of quick cuts showing characters in the grip of panic and terror, accompanied by driving, slashing music that could have been lifted from a “Godzilla” movie, but with no dialogue — and only fleeting glimpses at what is scaring these folks half to death. The first time I saw this trailer, what movie marketers called my “want to see” zoomed skyward. (Others, perhaps more sensible, will slam shut their laptops to ward off nightmares.)

Having seen “Henge” — and come back to Earth — I have to report that it is not the one-of-kind of experience I was expecting. Instead it’s the latest in a long line of Japanese films about henshin: metamorphosis from human to robot or, as the title suggests, monster. The film reference that leaps first to mind, though, is Shinya Tsukamoto’s demented 1989 classic “Tetsuo (Tetsuo: The Iron Man),” in which a businessman is transformed into an ambulant pile of metallic junk.

But where “Tetsuo” tried to be cutting-edge and even prophetic, heralding a “Terminator”-like “rise of the machines,” “Henge” comes from an older, more primal place, in which human beings can be suddenly seized by alien, malevolent forces and subjected to unspeakable tortures. I was reminded of the Londoners of Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” who could be transformed by plague into writhing, screaming, pustule-covered masses in the space of a day, to the horror and disgust of the temporarily healthy.

Yoshiaki (Kazunari Aizawa) and his wife, Keiko (Aki Morita), are a young couple living an ostensibly quiet and happy life when Yoshiaki is repeatedly seized by inexplicable fits, complete with spasmodic jerks and demonic howls. They call in Sakashita (Teruhiko Nobukuni), a pudgy, well-meaning junior of Yoshiaki’s at medical school, but he proves to be of little help.

One night Yoshiaki’s body begins to horrifically metamorphose and his antics begin to assume a strange, inhuman form. Keiko, who still wants to believe her husband is her husband and not a monster, is persuaded by Sakashita to have him committed to a mental institution. But then she begins to hear reports of random murders by a wandering maniac. Could Yoshiaki be the killer? What in the devil’s name is going on?

“Henge,” however, is less a murder mystery than a stomach-churning descent into hell, for reasons that make sense only to whoever or whatever is taking over Yoshiaki.

Only 54 minutes long, “Henge” has little time for wordy exposition or narrative complexity. Instead it moves briskly from shock to shock, mostly supplied by Aizawa, a tall, lanky actor who performs leaps with the agility of a gymnast and contortions with the fluency of an insane butoh dancer. This performance could have easily become embarrassing or unbearable, an actor’s workshop exercise gone wrong, but Aizawa pulls it off with energetic abandonment. He doesn’t throw himself into the role so much as allow it to possess him.

Ohata, who won prizes at the 2009 Pia and Yubari film festivals for his short “Daikenju (A Big Gun),” powers his simple story more through adroit camera work and editing than his primitive effects. At times, the camera lingers on the effects a beat or two too long, exposing their cheapness. Some directors do this to get a laugh, but Ohata would rather have gasps, if not tears.

His theme is the limits of love, a common one in Japanese films, in which lovers are constantly being tested by disease and other agents of cruel fate, but he totally rejects the usual moralizing and sentimentalism. “Henge,” he says in a program note, “is just an entertainment film.” That’s may sound bizarre — but he means it. By the end I felt like laughing, which was better than wondering if I’d ever sleep again.