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Andrew Osmond catches the live-action premiere of Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Kiseiju

The Tokyo International Film Festival closed with the live-action Parasyte, a superb blend of SF, comedy and primarily horror, where the levity of the early scenes freezes into a drama with an ice-cold alien grip.

For readers following the current TV anime season, the film – part one of two – is another version of the story being serialised as Parasyte – The Maxim. Both are adapted from an award-winning 1990s manga by Hitoshi Iwaaki about intelligent parasites that invade contemporary Tokyo, entering human bodies and mutating them into grotesque cannibal monsters – apart from one cuter organism which opts for co-existence with his unwilling schoolboy partner (Shota Sometani). Playing the part of the lad’s right hand, the creature quickly learns Japanese and grows a mouth to introduce itself as “Righty.” Amusingly, the first English-language edition of the manga, published by Tokyopop, was flopped Western-style, so Righty became Lefty for obvious reasons.

Considered just as horror, Parasyte would be a strong contender in any London Frightfest. Its obvious touchstones include Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its possession theme and John Carpenter’s The Thing in its body-horror visuals, though the echoes are drawn from a spectrum including the “splatstick” farce of Evil Dead 2 (the possessed hand’s possessed hand film); David Cronenberg’s gruelling early Shivers; and the mainstream high-school horror The Faculty (don’t trust the teachers!). But what’s especially impressive about Parasyte, and perhaps the most anime-like thing about it, is its slide from comedy, with the often cute presence of Righty, into heavy horror. Some of the most chilling moments come when you realise exactly what’s about to happen – and then it does and it’s still stomach-churning, though the level of gore is well under the Frightfest average.

While the special effects are most impressive, Shota Sometani carries the film as Shinichi, a schoolboy who starts out looking doughy and dopey – though dorkily attractive to a certain kind of girl – before being thrown into his shocking Cronenbergian journey. The script deftly dispatches obvious questions – such as why Shinichi can’t tell anyone about his infection by Righty – and sketches Shinichi’s domestic life. This domesticity collides with the emotional themes in a devastating way, defining Parasyte as both a very teenage film and a convincingly universal one. (Sometani was previously the lead in the lurid teen-angst manga adaptation Himizu, directed by Sion Sono.) The other cast are all strong, especially Bayside Shakedown star Eri Fukatsu as an eerie, ethereal chemistry teacher at Shinichi’s school.

The effects themselves are highly accomplished, partly because they concentrate on doing a little (by Hollywood standards) but doing it very well. There are occasional causes of complaint, such as a Parasyte-on-Parasyte hand fight that’s disappointingly simplistic, but it doesn’t dissipate the underlying suspense at all. Another moment involving a severed (but not dead) head feels like a direct nod to Carpenter’s Thing; it doesn’t have the original’s wondrous physicality, but feels like a fitting homage rather than a synthetic knockoff. For a long time, the rights to Parasyte were with Hollywood, with one version planned to have effects from the Jim Henson studio, but this iteration petered out long ago.

The setting is a very mundane Tokyo, eschewing Shibuya neon for washed-out neighbourhoods, centred around Shinchi’s increasingly vulnerable home and school. A bathtub-cum-larder is a central location for the Parasytes, chilling enough though we get only creepy hints of its contents. (“Women with heavy-make up leave an awful medicinal taste…”)

The film’s closing scenes – after an explosive, emotionally punchy climax – feel over-protracted as they set up the forthcoming sequel, but frankly Parasyte could stand up on its own. According to the festival press conference, the film was a labour of devotion for its director, Takashi Yamazaki, a long-time fan of Iwaaki’s manga. An effects specialist, Yamazaki has an eclectic filmography: he recreated 1960s Tokyo in the Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy, helmed the live-action Space Battleship Yamato, and recently topped the Japanese box-office with films about wartime fighter pilots (The Eternal Zero) and cartoon robot cats (Stand By Me Doraemon, in CGI). At the end of Parasyte, Yamazaki has a joint credit for effects and directing, and richly deserves praise for both.

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