Escape from Vampire Island
Jonathan Clements on the walking undead of Kim Tae-gyun’s Higanjima
Higanjima is a multiple pun in Japanese. It literally means Equinox Island, or the Yonder Isle, perhaps even The Island on the Other Side. However, as noted by the characters when they first arrive on the island, it is also a reference to higanbana (Lycoris radiata), the red-flowered spider lilies whose poisonous bulbs are sometimes strewn at the edges of Japanese farmhouses to kill mice. Flowering around the time of the autumn equinox, spider lilies have become associated in Buddhist tradition with the onset of winter, and hence the threshold between life and death. They should never be presented to a living person.
In Japan, spider lilies are usually associated with graveyards. In Chinese and Japanese legend, they are said to be the flowers that grow in hell, and also the flowers that mark the path towards reincarnation. For this latter reason, they are sometimes presented as bouquets to the deceased at Japanese funerals. Another superstition suggests that if two associates will never meet again, spider lilies will be found in their path as they part. Hence the ominous tension that surrounds the characters as they come ashore at the island, to find that every path, in every direction, bears the flowering symbol of eternal separation and death.
Koji Yamamoto’s original 2003 manga was soon snapped up as a game adaptation, turned into a text-based interactive adventure by Now Productions, released in Japan on the PSP in 2005. The action of the 15-rated game would be reflected in the later movie, with the player guiding leading man Akira on his search for his missing brother. The manga story, however, extends far beyond the events in the movie, introducing numerous new forms of enemy, and setting up Higanjima as the perfect survivalist playground inviting return visits by adventurous heroes.
Higanjima the manga, and its game spin-off are grab-bags of horror ideas. It eagerly mixes the locked-room combat of Battle Royale with the viral horror of Resident Evil, with just a dash of the old-time religion of The Wicker Man, and presents that most tantalising of locations for the role-playing gamer – a private island of adventure, close to home and yet inhabiting a world of myth and magic. An obscure island, Higanjima has been ominously left off Japanese maps, and is the location of an ancient evil, locked inside an old, forbidden storehouse. It is also the site of wartime experiments, an unfortunate confluence that allows for fantasy and science fiction to crash together. Miyabi the vampire king springs to unlife again on the island that once was his prison, but he also has a new aim and a new legion of minions – creating vampire hybrids, reanimated zombies, and “amalgams” (vampires who have drunk the blood of other vampires). Higanjima’s monster menagerie is infested with ideas from both Japanese mythology and Hollywood horror, with experimental creatures and mutated hybrids that include bewitching beauties, mermen, and even a blood-sucking Chihuahua. (*In fact, the “Chihuahua” form is so called because of its relative size in relation to giant vampires – it’s able to give human opponents a real run for their money).
Each has its particular weaknesses, hence the meticulous division of labour among the adventuring youths – some creatures are best shot with arrows, others destroyed with chemical bombs or slugged with a baseball bat. In all cases, the ultimate deterrent is a beheading – suitable to finish off even the lead vampire… or so it is said. In the original story, the slow-witted Pon might have been the weakest character, but arrived on the island with one of the most useful weapons – a pistol purloined from his policeman brother.
The manga series and game also have notoriously picky fans, such that many in the film world wondered if a movie version could truly satisfy everybody, particularly a film such as this one, compressing and cutting so much of the action, and even scandalously creating a new ending. “When I heard that Higanjima would be made into a live action film, I wondered how they were going to do it,” says leading man Hideo Ishiguro (Akira). “But when I read the script, particularly the scene where Akira has to say goodbye to Pon, I got a real lump in my throat. The cast and director all agreed, it’s the crucial scene, and the one that all of us zeroed in on.”
“In the real world,” Ishiguro concedes, “Akira would be the first one to die. He helps too many people.” But it’s Akira, the younger brother, who carries the weight of the film, and who personifies the development of the characters. He not only goes in search of his long-lost brother, he has to make tough choices about whether he should help friends who have been kidnapped by vampires, tortured by zombie war criminals, or infected with a vampire virus. In the tradition of 28 Days Later, infection with vampire blood is all it takes to turn a friend into an enemy.
“Once the filming started, there was a much bigger crew than I anticipated and I was amazed every day by the sets that the staff put up. They really recreated Higanjima for real,” adds Ishiguro.
In every sense of the word, it would seem. “It was tough,” admits co-star Dai Watanabe (Atsushi). “The boys didn’t have any privacy. We were shooting on Hachijojima, and Hideo and I were stuck together in a twin room for ten days. On Hachijojima it was relatively spacious, but once we moved locations to Yugashima, it was more like a prison cell than a hotel! The room was small enough, but then Hideo and I were sharing with Tomohisa Yuge (Ken), for another couple of weeks, so we felt like fellow inmates. We developed a strong bond, and it was interesting to see various sides of them. There aren’t many secrets in such extreme cohabitation!”
Beyond the hardships of location shooting, Watanabe thinks there was something else at work in the shadows. “One of the locations, Hachijojima, used to be a place of exile,” recalls Watanabe. “Some of the crew were sure they saw something spooky. Once, when we were doing a night shoot, rain shut down all the lights. Apparently, it was a place where mysterious phenomena are often reported, and I saw piles of salt left around the edges of the set to ward off evil spirits. I wasn’t scared, but later on we found ourselves filming at an old execution ground… it was quite awe-inspiring.”
Watanabe is from a family with a serious acting pedigree – his father is Ken Watanabe, of Last Samurai fame. But Watanabe only became an actor by accident, agreeing to play his father’s character as a boy in a samurai drama. “Initially, I did it because it was a chance to skip school, but it turned out to be more interesting than expected.” Despite his father’s hopes that he would get a “real” job, and despite graduating from university, Watanabe has drifted into acting after all.
Watanabe’s education, however, came in handier than expected when working with Korean director Kim Tae-gyun. “This was the first time I’d worked with a foreign director. But before shooting began, we were able to communicate in basic English. Once we were on location, we were all learning Japanese and Korean on the go, and there was plenty of pidgin banter. When things got important, though, we always communicated through an interpreter!”
Director Kim claims that film-sets are the same the world over, but notes that as a Korean he is sure to miss elements of Japanese expression from his actors. Accordingly, he often left nuances of performance to the Japanese themselves, concentrating instead on the action and the big picture.
“The director was full of ideas,” remembers Asami Mizukawa (Rei). “After every shot, he’d cut actors’ speeches and switch camera angles. Much of his direction required real flexibility for both the actors and the crew, and everyone had to hustle to keep up. But it was all very fresh for me, and I really enjoyed it. I think it’s given the film a real pace overall. We got detailed direction in our instructions, and there was no problem understanding him, despite the language barrier.”
“When I met him I thought he had very strong aura,” remembers Hideo Ishiguro. “His eyes looking at me were very piercing, but within them there was also warmth to wrap up everything, which made me want to work with him as soon as possible. When the shooting started, because of the language barrier, I wasn’t sure at all what the director wanted from me, so at the beginning I just played a scene with my own interpretation and waited to see whether that was OK or not.
By the end of filming, Ishiguro had developed enough of a sense of Kim’s style that he no longer needed translation. “Before the interpreter said a word,” he remembers, “I could sense how the director felt. Even though I didn’t understand the language, I understood what he was feeling.”
Asami Mizukawa, who plays the meretricious Rei, is glad that she doesn’t have to fight vampires in real life, and also that she doesn’t face the awful conflicts of loyalty with which her character has to deal. “If it were me, it would be absolutely impossible to survive in such a harsh situation,” she notes. “You have to set aside the notion of whether Rei’s behaviour is Right or Wrong, and focus on the idea that her bitter past has made her a strong woman, prepared to sacrifice herself in revenge.”
Made to perform wire-work stunts with minimal rehearsals, Mizukawa threw herself into the action. “I am not afraid of heights,” she boasts, “and I loved all the stunt work, with all the actors tumbling and bumping into walls without any rehearsal.”
Thrown in at the deep end, actor Hideo Ishiguro (Akira) often found himself blocking out sword fights on the spot: “The director wanted me to develop physical strength for the shooting, so I started muscle training three months prior to the filming,” he remembers. “At the beginning of the shoot I had strength, but near to the end I was more and more exhausted and by the finish I was running out of battery power!”
“Basically, it was a tough shoot! But the cast and crew felt a real sense of camaraderie, so that when we wrapped I was almost in tears. The shoot lasted three months, but I felt really lucky to have met these people. I know it’s unlikely, but I would love to shoot with the same cast and crew again. I think if they were with me, I could overcome any hardship.”
Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
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