It’s always exciting when Takashi Miike releases a new movie – something that happens approximately 19 times per year. The guy is a workhorse who steps up to the plate often and strikes out a lot, but when he connects the impact sends you flying past the parking lot. Unfortunately, Over Your Dead Body isn’t one of the home runs.
Leaving aside the quality shifts of quick turnaround, everyone essentially knows that there are two Miikes (and a third who makes children’s movies): gonzo horror Miike who made shockers like Audition, Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q (got milk?), and polished prestige Miike who made 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. They’ve advised one another on projects before, but this is the first genuine collaboration between the co-directors, and they’ve chosen to take on one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.
Written in the early 19th century, “Yotsuya Kaidan” has been adapted for film at Shakespearean levels. There’s no need for prior knowledge going into Over Your Dead Body, though, because screenwriter Kikumi Yamagishi (who also wrote Death of a Samurai) shrewdly shows most of the play through the movie’s meta conceit. Instead of a direct retelling, the film focuses on professional actors staging the kabuki whose lives become intertwined with the fictional themes of betrayal, greed and ghostly revenge.
All of it lives on the stage. There’s the rehearsal space where leading actors Miyuke (Ko Shibasaki) and Lousuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) are flinging pained romance at one another while stoic department heads look on; there’s the Patrick Bateman-designed apartment where Miyuke often waits for a mercurial Lousuke to see her (or not); and there’s a street construction blockade where both wait – normally in separate cars – for the light to change.
The result of bouncing between well-established environments is the overwhelming feeling that we can’t escape. If we aren’t at one location, we’re at another, and the caged, pacing animal effect of it all is excellent. It’s also aided by slow pans of the chilly spaces and close-ups that put us uncomfortably close to despicable people.
In truth, Lousuke isn’t evil. He’s just a philanderer afraid of commitment who begins an affair with the young ingenue (Miho Nakanishi) who also plays the woman his character cheats with in the play. There are a lot of story mirrors, but Miike and Yamagishi wisely avoid full reflection, choosing instead to bend and confuse certain elements as they find their way into real life. The meta angle offers some solid ground for exploring different sides of the characters, but it would have been too simple/easy to have real life play out exactly as it does on stage.
It’s a beautiful phantasmagoria, but it feels hollow for several reasons. One is Ichikawa, who never ramps up to the intensity demanded by a world spinning out of control. As the fantasy blurs with reality, and Lousuke’s tell-tale heart acts out, Ichikawa remains mostly steely – too cool for comfort. Shibaski, on the other hand, is almost always pathetically gripping even when she’s sitting still.
More than the performances, it’s really the collaboration between Miike and Miike that falls short. Instead of enhancing one another, the gonzo and prestige directors put everything on mute. By the time things get bonkers, Miike strangely stops himself from turning things up to eleven. Add in some shoddy CGI, and the finale falls far short of understandable expectations.
To the movie’s credit, it’s completely uninterested in squaring the circle between the fantasy and reality. I’d be wary of anyone claiming to have “solved” it or accurately diagrammed which scenes belong in which categories. By the halfway mark, everything starts to blend inexorably.
Unfortunately, the impact just isn’t there. Miike put on oven mitts before punching us.
The Upside: Gorgeous cinematography; claustrophobia done with open spaces; a classical tale given modern life; Shibasaki’s performance
The Downside: A muted experience both in the fantasy and real world stories
On the Side: Miike returns to horror (later this year!) with As the Gods Will.