Judging from the scene that surrounds Teru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) as he struggles to open his eyes, he’s either just waking up after the best party ever or something truly awful must have occurred. Where is he? Feeling around it seems like there are a lot of seats – a plane, or a train? Yes, a train. He remembers being on some kind of trip with his school mates – they were all on the train together so where is everyone? Struggling to get up, stumbling against walls he finds them – dead, all dead. Seemingly the only survivor of some kind of accident, Teru tries to get off the train to find out what’s happened and look for other survivors. It seems the train is trapped in a tunnel, both ends blocked by fallen rubble. Beginning to fear he really is all alone he comes across another boy perched in the window of an adjacent carriage. Small relief however as Nobuo (Takayuki Yamada) seems to be acting very strangely and muttering on about red lights and embracing the darkness. Evading him leads Teru further along the train where he finds another survivor, a girl – Ako, desperately hiding from Nobuo after witnessing him completely losing control whilst looking for survivors.
You might think this is where our three plucky teenagers club together to figure out how to escape the train wreck and get home, but no this is not that type of film. Quicker than you can say Lord of the Flies, Nobuo has gone completely crazy – painting a strange grin on his face with some lipstick he found and dotting his his chest with it too, he even makes a makeshift spear go with with new tribal outfit as a sort of dedicatory effort to his new red light god. He’s very much of the opinion that this stretch of tunnel is the only safe space left on earth and its three inhabitants have inherited a new eden, if they’d just learn to accept it. Teru and Ako though, clearly terrified by Nobuo’s transformation, do little other than wait for help to arrive. When serious tremors start to shake the tunnel and they no longer have any choice but to act they finally manage to climb out through a supply tunnel. What they find on the other side though is a vast desert of ash – all visible signs of human civilisation have been destroyed and they seem to be alone in the world.
Dragon Head is a bleak, seventies style post-apocolyptic drama in which our ‘heroes’ discover that the threads that hold society together are incredibly weak and snap the moment the slightest pressure is placed upon them. Without spoiling too much, we never find out exactly what it is that has happened, only that whatever it was caused people to turn on each other in a terrible fashion and those few who have survived only want to forget. During in their travels our, frankly unbelievably clueless and incredibly lucky, duo come across a town full of men who’ve decided not to go on and don’t want anyone else to either; mercenary soldiers with dubious motivations; a pair of strange brothers who’ve been surgically altered to remove all trace of fear and sadness and myriad other examples of humanity’s darkest places.
In facing the successive crises, it has to be said that Teru and Ako are not exactly survival buffs. They react to each new situation in what might be termed a realistic fashion as far as two teenagers faced with seemingly impossible odds would do. Largely this means there is a fair amount of panic, crying, blind stumbling and a the recurrent idea of simply giving up. This realistic portrayal of ordinary people caught up in an extreme situation is quite refreshing and a direct contrast to the super smart, seemingly indestructible, level headed teens you often find in such movies. However, the vulnerability of the central couple may also be turn off those viewers who find them simply too whiny and wonder why they don’t get on with trying to find a better way to survive.
For what was seemingly quite a low budget picture shot on early digital, Dragon Head features some very impressive visuals. Making use of old school techniques like matte paintings alongside CG effects, the post apocalyptic landscape is rendered in an extremely convincing way and this is certainly one of those films that has made the best of what it had. In fact it benefits greatly from not relying on CGI to the extent other films of its era often did and so appears much less dated in comparison. Its real world effects and attention to detail mark it well above the some of the big budget disaster epics that began to appear around the turn of the century and help it become much more engaging as a result.
Dragon Head is not without its faults – it’s based on a manga which lends it an episodic structure which isn’t always conducive to good cinematic story storytelling. It’s also possible that some of the overarching mythology which isn’t really explored during the course of the film is more fully explained in the manga (not to mention the Seventies style ending) but really these are small problems. Dragon Head turns out to be much more impressive than you’d originally think it would be and offers a refreshing dose of bleakness that’s been absent from our screens for much too long.