Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ, Takashi Miike, 2016)

terra-formarsTerra Formars – Terror for Mars? It’s all about terror in the quest for terra and reform in Takashi Miike’s bug hunt extravaganza adaptation of Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s manga. In fact, much of the plot is more or less the same as Aliens, but our motley crew is not a crack team of space marines headed by a recently awoken from stasis super survivor who proves unexpectedly dextrous in a robotic forklift exoskeleton, but a collection of human “bugs”, parasitical criminals who’ve each been made an offer they can’t refuse. High budget and boasting a starry cast, Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ) definitely falls into the throwaway Miike category and proves curiously dull despite its ridiculous set up, but then if you happen to be into bugs there’s really a lot to like here.

Running through the Tokyo of 2597 which seems to be some kind of Blade Runner theme park, Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are trying to escape the oddly bug-like police only to be captured and taken to the lair of mad scientist and all round fabulous guy, Honda (Shun Oguri). He has a proposal – join his mission to Mars and get a large amount of money instead of getting a death sentence for the murder they were on the run for. Reluctantly, they agree but there are several things Honda forgot to tell them – they’ve been given alien bug DNA which gives them super powers, and the “cockroaches” they’re supposed to be exterminating have mutated into giant humanoid creatures capable of planning and tool use. Oh, and everyone on the first mission died horribly.

By 2597, the world has become massively overpopulated but luckily enterprising scientists had come up with a plan for terraforming Mars through the use of various kinds of moss distributed by millions of cockroaches. The terraforming process is now complete and it’s time for colonisation to begin but no one really thought about what to do with all their insectile helpers. No longer “mere” bugs, the highly evolved Roaches are now the (not quite) indigenous peoples of Mars. Miike does not push the colonisation narrative (and nobly attempts to mitigate the elements which have seen the original source material decried as racist) but you can’t get away from the fact that the Roaches have every right to fight back and defend their homeland from an invading force wielding superior technology and hellbent on mass extermination.

Honda’s big idea (well, one of his big ideas as it turns out) was to send a bug to catch a bug. In some senses, all of the assembled bait could be regarded as human pests – petty criminals and reprobates offering nothing of value to society. Given the pace of the film and the subsequent carnage, none of them is given much time to shine so we mostly remember them by their epithets – creepy serial killer, hikkokomori hacker, teenage prostitution ringleader, illegal immigrant, former yakuza and dodgy ex-police officer – in other words, people with no options that no one will miss. They’ve each been more or less forced into this position by their peculiar circumstances as exploited by Honda and his team who have given them a “risky” operation involving alien DNA which has given them bug-like powers from super sharp pincers to venomous stings.

Bug hunt is an apt way to describe the subsequent action as the crew activate their inner insects and prepare to squash some Roaches only to die in various painful looking ways, usually by losing their heads. There’s a distinctly Aliens undertone to the entire enterprise, even borrowing a key plot revelation from the film’s ‘80s anti-corporate message but it’s all so unimportant next to the bug killing that it most likely gets missed. Repetitious in the extreme, the two hour runtime is stretched to breaking point with battle after battle of mostly losses as the Roaches effortlessly swat our puny human heroes.

Production design is the most impressive element but even this borrows heavily from such similarly themed genre landmarks as Blade Runner, Aliens, Total Recall, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers. Ultra camp from Honda’s obsession with his fashionable outfits to the Ultraman style practical effects of the bug suits, Terra Formars later fails to capitalise on its surreal and ridiculous premise, remaining disappointingly straightforward in terms of tone for much of the running time. Keen entomologists will perhaps enjoy the animated info sequences introducing the various beetles, flies, and other assorted creatures as well as those same traits being acted out by our heroes but for everyone else Terra Formars may prove a rather dull expedition to the previously red planet, now a green and pleasant land but very definitely inhabited and defended. Plenty of bug splatting action with only minimally disquieting overtones but a sorry lack of excitement, Terra Formars is a disappointingly by the numbers sci-fi effort from the usually exuberant Miike but does at least look good.


Original trailer (No subtitles – massive spoilers)

Tag (リアル鬼ごっこ, Sion Sono, 2015)

tag posterYou could say Sion Sono is back, though with six films released within a year it’s almost as if he just nipped out to make a cup of tea. At first look Tag (リアル鬼ごっこ, Riaru Onigokko) seems as if it might be towards the bottom of the pile – school girls running away from things for 90 minutes whilst contending with awkward gusts of wind, but this is Sion Sono after all and so there’s a whole world of craziness going on below the surface.

The action begins with a gaggle of school girls on a bus. Two of them start ribbing the girl on the opposite bank of seats, Mitsuko (Reina Triendl), because she’s always writing poetry. The pen gets knocked out of her hand and as she bends down to pick it up she notices a white feather stuck to the clip. Gazing at the improbable symbol, Mitsuko becomes the only survivor when a sudden gust of wind blows the top off the bus taking all of the other passengers’ heads with it. Mitsuko starts running, re-encountering the dreaded wind monster over and over again before stopping at a stream to wash the blood off her face and change into the cleaner set of clothes she finds abandoned there.

After this she finds herself ending up at an entirely different school where everyone seems to know her. Has she gone mad, had a psychotic break? If not then then she’s about to as an attempt to ditch class with some of the other girls results in yet another freak school girl apocalypse.

Running again, Mitsuko ends up at a police box where another woman seems to know her but insists her name’s Keiko (Mariko Shinoda). Oh, and it’s her wedding day today! That’s not even the last time that’s going to happen and it’s far from the weirdest thing that’s going to happen to Mitsuko today. As a friend of Mitsuko 2’s reminds us, “Life is surreal, don’t let it get to you”.

Answers come, after a fashion. Though Tag is nominally based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada (previously adapted into a long running film series), Sono apparently did not even read the book and has only taken its theme – everyone with the same surname being hunted down and exterminated, and repurposed it for his own ends. This time rather than a common surname, it’s an entire gender that is forced to live under constant threat as the plaything of a far off entity that is as invisible and ever present as the wind. It’s no accident that everyone we meet up until the half way point is female, and that the first (presumed) male we meet is wearing a giant pig’s head. Mitsuko and her cohorts have in fact been used as a literal toy by the men on the other side of the curtain. Their very DNA has been co-opted for the “entertainment” of the male world without their consent or even knowledge, and even if she had known, Mitsuko is powerless to resist.

The solution that is found is both very old and very profound. It’s far from an original ending to this kind of story though in these hands, and used in this way, it can, and has, caused offence. Tag wants to ask you about life, about death, about agency and misogyny – but it wants to ask you all those things whilst watching school girls get ripped apart by the same wind that keeps blowing their skirts up. Sono has his cake and eats it too. There will undoubtedly be those that feel that far from satirising mainstream attitudes to women, Sono has, in fact, indulged in the worst parts of them.

If all of that was sounding a little heavy, Tag runs (literally) at breakneck speed with barely any time for conscious thought between the first bizarre case of gore filled mass murder and the next. It’s also strangely beautiful with a hazy, dreamlike veneer full of repeated images and scenes of idyllic serenity. Is any of this real? Who could really say. The ultramodern, indie score also strikes a slightly hypnotic note lending to the feeling of freewheeling weightlessness.

In many ways, Tag has much more in common with early Sono hit Suicide Club thanks to a general thematic sensibility than to any of his more straightforward work since. That said, Tag never quite resolves itself in a wholly satisfying way and though its final moments are filled with a poetic sensitivity, there’s a certain barrier created by its ambiguity that feels unfinished rather than deliberate. Another predictably “not what it looks like” effort from Sono, Tag may just come to be remembered as his most considered effort of 2015.


First Published on UK Anime Network in November 2015.

Playing at the Leeds International Film Festival on 18th November 2015.

Other movies playing at Leeds include Assassination Classroom, Happy Hour, Our Little Sister and Love & Peace.

Can’t find a subtitled trailer for some reason but to be honest you’ll get the gist of it: