Written by Jess Wilton
Japan, 2005. 90 min. Fever Dreams/ Media Suits Ltd. Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, YÃ´ko Fujita, Kentaro Seagal, Takamasa Suga, YÃ»ki Takeuchi; Music: Dir en Grey, Rui Ogawa; Cinematography: Shinichi Fujita; Action Director: Go Ohara, Tak Sakaguchi; Written by: Seiji Chiba, Shinichi Fujita, Junya Kato; Directed by: Yuji Shimomura
It seems almost counter-intuitive to try to lend depth to Death Trance. It is, as indicated in its promotional materials, a movie about â€œan unknown time, an unknown place, [a man] without reasons, with no future.â€ Whatever meaning we might glean from its ninety minutes of dizzying camera angles, extravagant choreography, and outrageous costumes, it only detracts from the filmâ€™s ultimate purposeâ€”destruction. Which is not to say that director Yuji Shimomura and his team are after exactly the same sort of destruction as Grave, the filmâ€™s â€˜heroâ€™ (using the word loosely). Grave is after a good fight, and if that means the end of the world, heâ€™s ok with that. Similarly, the filmmakers are largely concerned with making the coolest-looking movie they can. If, as an afterthought, they dismantle a few traditional notions of narrative and identification, wellâ€”theyâ€™re ok with that too.
As a result, this film has the kind of brilliance in simplicity that anyone who struggles to write or make art will find infuriating. I, for one, always thought that it was off-limits to do away with place, time, and motive in a story. There are loads of sci-fi films without place and timeâ€”Star Wars is the first that comes to mind–. Iâ€™ve also seen plenty of art films without motive or direction, like Strangers in Paradise. But all three? I always thought this kind of apathy and nihilism would alienate an audience. But watching a movie like Death Trance gives us all the joy of kicking over a sandcastle.
The disposal of storytelling logic has a number of happy consequences. For instance, the filmmakersâ€™ refusal to bother with the limits of conventional narrative allows them to toss in elements from every possible genre. From bloodthirsty sword battles in the tradition of Japanese Jidaigeki, to the hit-the-deck and shoot-up-all-glass-in-sight barfight scene of a western, to the outlandish costumes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy, itâ€™s all here. Dialogue is sparse, and ranges from stiff to goofy. Most of it involves two warriors, Grave (Tak Sagaguchi) and Sid (Kentaro Seagal), telling young monk Ryuen to â€œshut upâ€ while they fight for control over a magical coffin that either grants wishes or destroys the world. Indeed, the constant shushing of the monk stages another rejection of narrative. After all, Ryuen is the observer. He follows the warriors and tries to inject some insight every once in a while. When told to be quiet, heâ€™s subject to the movieâ€™s anti-messageâ€”donâ€™t worry about telling the real story or doing the right thing, just keep dragging your magical coffin around from one fight to the next.
There might be some doubt, early on, as to whether or not Grave is a â€˜heroâ€™ at all. He destroys a temple, slaughters dozens, and speaks in monosyllables. For the first twenty minutes or so I assumed Grave was the bad guyâ€”not to be identified with. Then, strange things began to happen. Dream sequences give us a glimpse into Graveâ€™s subconscious. Point-of-view shots place us in his shoes. Special attention is given to his face, his body, his execution of complicated moves. We find ourselves in a situation that can create some conflict for a viewer who is conditioned to associate the moral clues of the narrative with clues from the visual structure of the film. Here they conflict, and weâ€™re forced to choose. I chose Grave, forcing myself to ignore my usual need for plausibility, character, and cohesive story. It was liberating. When you forget about looking for a plot, all you have left are wonderfully simple questions like â€œwhoâ€™s got the coffin?â€ and â€œwho is the â€˜chosen oneâ€™?â€
Thus, in the process of watching Death Trance, if youâ€™re taking the cooperative approach, you get to do away with your need for plausibility. What remains is based almost solely on what Susan Sontag called â€œthe aesthetics of destruction,â€ which she explained as â€œthe peculiar joys of making a mess.â€ Sontag was talking about 1950â€™s alien invasion movies when she noticed this odd delight, but this film nevertheless bears a few similarities to those films. For instance, thereâ€™s a monster of sorts, even if the â€œgoddess of destructionâ€ does turn out to be a gorgeous woman. And thereâ€™s a battle for the fate of the planet, although that planet may or may not be earth. Details like this donâ€™t matter when youâ€™re watching Sagaguchi make mincemeat of a pack of zombie-ish creatures that bear an eerie resemblance to bunnies.
What, then, does it all add up to? On one level, it adds up to practically nothing. After all, itâ€™s a film about the joys of destruction, a fundamentally anti-meaning piece. The content itself is mere decoration for the obliteration and death. On another level, though, it comments on maturity. It asks the audience to rely on parts of their movie-watching brain that have been long dormant. It brings us back to a time when we couldnâ€™t care less about plausibility. It reminds us of how irritating we used to find the movies our parents watched, loaded with narrative and context, most of which was incomprehensible to us. Watching Death Trance, weâ€™re ten years old again, perfectly comfortable with the idea that the film never explains the presence of the little girl who follows the coffin every where and giggles whenever Grave beheads a bunch of people. Sheâ€™s just a great prop, tiny and invulnerable, providing the aesthetic balance for the testosterone-heavy Grave.
One of the conclusions Sontag came to about this sort of visual spectacle of disaster, was that it can â€œnormalize what is psychologically unbearable.â€ We see the (almost) end of the world, we enjoy watching it, and walk out of the theater less afraid of it. This was especially important during the Cold War, and as long as we keep remaking those films itâ€™s clearly something that audiences still crave. Death Trance, however, doesnâ€™t so much lessen our fear of the atom bomb as it diminishes our fear of immaturity. After all, at the age of ten, movies didnâ€™t need to make sense because nothing else made sense. And while this state of childhood confusion was acceptable when we had people to look out for us, it can be a little scary to think about when youâ€™re on your own. In our everyday lives, we need structure. We need coherent narratives, motives, times and placesâ€”which is all the more reason for an adult to spend ninety minutes without them, left only to wonder if the young Seagal really looks so much like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or if itâ€™s just the hair.