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Parasyte: Gory invasion of the cannibal body snatchers

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

The closing film of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Takashi Yamazaki’s “Kiseiju: Part 1 (Parasyte: Part 1),” arrives in theaters with a lot of hype. Based on Hitoshi Iwaaki’s best-selling manga about the stealth invasion of Earth by alien parasites, the film is the first of a two-part epic, with the second film scheduled for release on April 25, 2015.

Will the buyers of 11 million or so “Kiseiju” comics be disappointed? Given Yamazaki’s sterling box-office record — his controversial World War II kamikaze drama “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero)” earned ¥8.7 billion, a figure only surpassed by megahit “Frozen,” for the year — even a blizzard of online naysaying will not stop the films from becoming humongous hits.

I couldn’t call myself a fan of the manga, but the film adaptation of “Parasyte” hits the hard-to-find sweet spot between black comedy and serious sci-fi/horror, while uncannily echoing scare headlines about the worldwide spread of the Ebola virus. It’s what so many directors would like to make, but seldom do: a well-made piece of popular entertainment that not only reflects the zeitgeist, but is a step ahead of it.

True, the relationship between the skittish teenage hero Shinichi Izumi (Shota Sometani) and the brainy parasite (voiced by Sadao Abe) that lodges in his right hand borders on being goofy. And the film’s premise of aliens using humans as their sock puppets/protein source has been used again and again, beginning with the 1956 Don Siegal cult classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Kiseiju: Part 1 (Parasyte: Part 1)
Rating
Director Takashi Yamazaki
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese

But Yamazaki, a sci-fi veteran who debuted with the 2000 robot-from-the-future hit “Juvenile,” expertly surfs the edge between cute and creepy in turning both the source material and genre tropes to his own quirky advantage. He also adroitly transitions from the comedic early scenes to the doom-laden latter ones, concluding with strong hooks (the film was co-written by Yamazaki and Ryota Kosawa) that make waiting for Part 2 less a duty than an anticipated five-month-long pleasure.

“Parasyte” begins with a sequence showing one of the title creatures — resembling a cross between a slug and a centipede — making its way into a human brain via an ear canal and taking over its unsuspecting host. Our hero, the sleeping Shinichi, is spared this fate, though the critter invades his right hand, first appearing an eye on his palm. Later it assumes a semi-human form, with a mouth on Shinichi’s palm and a single eye protruding from his forefinger.

Calling itself Migi (“Righty”), Shinichi’s new companion turns out to be a pint-sized whiz, absorbing human knowledge as fast as he can click through Web pages. He can also defend himself, transforming his finger-hands into sharp blades that can lash out like deadly whips. After his initial repulsion and disgust, Shinichi resigns himself to Migi’s presence (or rather attachment) and forms an uneasy partnership with him.

Migi serves as an early-warning system when other parasites — inside their dead-eyed human hosts — are coming dangerously near. Some are hunting for human nourishment, while others are seeking less violently obvious ways of adapting to — and eventually dominating — their new environment.

One of the latter is Ryoko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu), a new biology teacher at Shinichi’s school who regards Shinichi and Migi as interesting objects of study. Her fellow parasites, however, tend to see this pair as, if not a meal, untrustworthy freaks. That is, their fight for survival — the emotion-free parasite’s only concern — continues, and comes to involve Shinichi’s down-to-earth mom (Kimiko Yo), his well-meaning, clueless girlfriend, Satomi (Ai Hashimoto), and other hapless humans around them.

The producers have wisely cast real actors in the lead roles, instead of the usual idol types, starting with Sometani as Shinichi. A frequent presence in indie films since his breakout performance as a disturbed teen in Sion Sono’s 2011 drama “Himizu,” Sometani does everything from funny rubber-faced agony to chilling narrow-eyed rage with full-throttled conviction, but without violating the character’s core. Shinichi, Sometani makes us believe, is still Shinichi — even after he begins to take on certain of Migi’s characteristics. But how far can he go before he crosses the line to permanent alienation?

Adding to this anxiety about his and humanity’s fate is Naoki Sato’s score, with its blaringly powerful, often-repeated chord reminiscent of the jaggedly insinuating “Godzilla” theme. Following his titanic battles with various monsters, Godzilla would return to the sea. The aliens of “Parasyte,” however, have launched a life-or-death invasion, set to music that sounds like the trumpets of the Apocalypse. Be afraid — and see Part 2.


Fun fact: In the English-language edition of the “Kiseiju” manga, the panels are reversed for left-to-right reading and Shinichi’s parasite hand is accordingly called “Lefty,” rather than “Righty.”