Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is a master of many genres but it has been a long while since he has tackled a horror film. This is all the more surprising for the fact that his most famous film is arguably his 1999 horror classic "Audition". Although he has skirted the edges of horror with a number of his features since, it would be fair to state that "Over Your Dead Body" is his first pure feature length horror film since "Audition". You would think such a return would be greeted with great expectation from both the public and critics worldwide, but the film has come and gone with barely a whisper. So does this lack of recognition have anything to do with the quality of the film or is this just a film that has fallen through the cracks and has yet to find its audience?
The story of "Over Your Dead Body" is about two actors, Miyuki and Kosuke, who are romantically involved, and who are in the middle of rehearsals for their latest play, an adaptation of “Yotsuya Kaidan”. The play is a famous Japanese ghost story about a samurai who is haunted by the ghost of his wife after he chooses to betray her for a younger woman. Miyuki and Kosuke both play the leads in "Yotsuya Kaidan" and as they get deeper into rehearsals they find life imitating art, as Kosuke starts an affair with a younger co-star. As reality and fantasy begin to merge in Miyuki's mind, she starts to have a break down where she attempts to go out for revenge against her boyfriend in a similar manner to that of her character in the play.
With every review I write for a Takashi Miike film, I seem to mention the fact that he is very hit or miss with me. The man is very technically gifted and understands how to put together a great looking film always, but my problems with him are a result of his massive imagination and the fact that I feel he over stuffs his films with so many ideas that they become bloated, and exhausting to watch, not to mention that they start to become a little messy, narratively speaking. There are times when this "balls to the wall" approach pays off in spades ("For Love's Sake" being a perfect example),but more often than not I usually come away from Miike's films wishing he restrained himself just a little more. "Over Your Dead Body" is the most restrained effort I have seen from Miike for quite some time and the film benefits immensely from this. This is a very deliberately paced film, with the story taking its time to unfurl. The biggest surprise of the film is that the majority of its running time is devoted to the rehearsals of the play so we essentially get to see its story play out from beginning to end, with the actual story of infidelity between the two actors being close to a footnote. This is perfect for a western audience who may not be familiar with the famous story that the play in the film is based on, but I'm not sure how it would play to a Japanese audience, as this may come across as unnecessary padding.
Whilst I mentioned that "Over Your Dead Body" is a very restrained film for Miike, it is also a very low key effort too. There aren't really any big moments in the film, rather it is a film that relies on atmosphere rather than sudden bursts of violence. That said this is still a Miike film and fans of the director will likely be impressed by this film's final twenty minutes, which is when it takes a turn towards the bizarre and bloody. The main problem with the film is that because the majority of the film is actually a play, there is no suspense or danger associated with it because we know that none of what we are watching is real. Again, for Western audiences this would be less of a problem because we are learning the story that is going to end up relating to the "real life" story later in the film, so we are still invested in the play.
Again, because the majority of the film is a play, Miike is able to use this to his advantage in regards to the lighting styles he employs. He is able to get away with using quite artificial and theatrical (not to mention dramatic) lighting to create a bold and unique look to the film. Nothing comes across as looking real or natural and yet due to the nature of the story, it works perfectly. Likewise the set designs, are all stage bound and thus look artificial but stylized in a way that gives the film an extra kick to it. The scenes set in the real world have a pared back and slick look to it, to the point of it looking sterile. The lighting is either very straight forward and flat looking, or extremely dark. Unfortunately this causes the audience to respond more to the play rather than the narrative behind the scenes which I'm sure was meant to be the point of the film.
In terms of acting, like the film itself, most of the performances are of a low key nature, with most of the roles being underplayed. I thought Ko Shibasaki, who plays Miyuki, fared a lot better than her co-stars at portraying two distinct characters and making them both easily identifiable. She also does a great job convincing us of her character's extreme mental breakdown. Ebizo Ichikawa, on the other hand, really gives a flat performance throughout when playing Kosuke, and the samurai character he portrays in the play. He barely emotes through the whole film and looks bored the entire time. He walks through each scene with nary a presence and unfortunately I thought he was the weak link to the film. I say unfortunately because his character has the longest amount of screen time. It's true that “Over Your Dead Body” is a quiet horror film, but you can still bring an intensity or an intent to a performance without needing to go over the top.
I mentioned earlier that the film's final twenty minutes are quite bizarre and bloody in nature, and I am sure that long time fans of the director will really get the most out of these scenes, however from my perspective, the whole finale seemed rushed to the point that at times it is a little incoherent. To be honest, there is one part of the finale that I am thoroughly confused about (I have my theory as to what is happening, but have no idea if this is actually correct). Whilst there are no moments like the infamous scene from “Audition”, there is one scene towards the end that involves household utensils that will get everyone talking. It is a scene that comes out of nowhere, (in terms of the intensity behind it) and is the film's bloodiest. It is also a scene that will make you feel sick to your stomach when watching it. The reason why I think the finale is rushed, and thus doesn't have the necessary impact I expect was intended, is because of the majority of the film is about the play and as such we are invested more in the characters of “Yotsuya Kaidan”, as opposed to the characters of “Over Your Dead Body”. The final twenty minutes is about them though, and since we have spent little time with them until now, it is hard to care (or understand) about what is happening between them. Just as you start to invest in them though, it is over, which is a little frustrating.
The above review is actually for the 95 minute version of “Over Your Dead Body” that is found on the U.S blu-ray. After watching the film, I was horrified to learn that there was a director's cut, available in Japan, that is an extra sixteen minutes longer. Unfortunately I have no idea what this extra footage entails, but you would think that the finale may be lengthened to make more sense or the more “meta” qualities of the film may be explained more or better layered into the story. It frustrates me no end knowing that there is another version out there (and one that is called a “director's cut” no less), and if I ever get around to seeing it I will amend this review to include some details of it.
Overall, I found Takashi Miike's latest horror film “Over Your Dead Body” to be a bit of a mixed bag. From a directing point of view, I was highly impressed. I loved Miike at his most restrained (it reminded me of his part in the omnibus feature “Three....Extremes”, which was entitled “The Box”), but unfortunately this low key approach seems to have affected some of the performances within the film. I also felt that he got the balance wrong between the narrative of the play and the narrative of his movie, focusing too much on the play even though these scenes were better and more artistic in nature. Fans of Miike may also be disappointed because the madness of his previous films is toned down here, although that is not to say they are totally absent. At the end of the day, I would call “Over Your Dead Body” a near miss, but I would really like to check out that director's cut before declaring that conclusively. Until then though, I can only give this version of the film.....