Indie director Uchida Eiji looks to finally have scored a breakthrough hit with this darkly comic exploration of neglect, obsession and voyeurism that successfully mixes exploitation with an astute social conscience.
All Nami has ever wanted is to be loved. But when her mother leaves home to pursue her obsession with sponsoring Third World children, and her sister elopes with her boyfriend, she is left with a subordinate father and his new trophy mistress. As she grows up, Nami (Takiuchi Kumi) seeks out other solitary individuals, social outcasts like herself, and obsessively observes and logs their behaviour. She looks for patterns, answers, anything to help her make a connection and understand her own predicament, and when she spies an elderly, reclusive gentleman (Sasano Takashi), she believes she has found her soulmate.
Uchida, whose previous films have gone almost completely unseen in the West until now, repeatedly shifts his focus during Greatful Dead (whose title is misspelt deliberately), but does so in a fluid, coherent manner that never loses its audience. His focus moves from the neglect of children within an urban environment by their selfish, self-indulgent parents, only to later concentrate on the equally serious plight of the elderly, who in turn go largely ignored and unsupported by their children when they reach adulthood.
At the centre of the film, however, is Nami, wonderfully performed by relative newcomer Takiuchi Kumi. In the film's first half, her endearingly kooky behaviour effortlessly wins us over, even as she flaunts her newfound wealth (following the death of her father) and latches onto members of the community in an unhealthily obsessive manner. She is beautiful, intelligent and good-natured, traversing the city on her bicycle, as if she hadn't a care in the world. Why wouldn't we be quickly won over?
However, once she zeroes in on her frail, geriatric mark, Nami begins to change, especially when the old man also attracts the attentions of a couple of meddling Church missionaries, whose good intentions immediately encroach on Nami's own plans. Inevitably her obsession spirals out of control from harmless observation, to dangerous and ultimately deadly territoriality and desperation. What is most impressive, however, is Takiuchi's performance, which totally seduces the audience before transforming into something utterly despicable. What Takiuchi manages to achieve is to keep us on her side until it is too late, bringing on an all-the-more horrific reaction when she finally goes over the edge.
The combination of Uchida's slick no-nonsense direction, layered, socially-aware yet genre-literate script and Takiuchi's excellent central performance, result in a smart package that should finally see Uchida recognised outside his own country and encourage the exploration of his back catalogue by a wider audience. If nothing else, Greatful Dead will certainly guarantee that whatever its director and female lead turn their hand to next, it will be enthusiastically followed by their newfound overseas fanbase. Dark, bloody, unflinchingly brutal, yet also laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely touching and with a profound social conscience, Greatful Dead is the real deal.
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