Apocalypse? How? It’s normally not helpful when reviewing a film to give away plot points about the demise of major characters during proceedings, but with Isn’t Anyone Alive?, as the title suggests, the audience really should expect a certain amount of death. With a screenplay from the play by Shirô Maeda, this is an Armageddon comedy.
Friendships, relationships and conflicts are an inevitable part of university life as well as the lectures and research. At this particular university a young couple, who are soon to be married, are trying to reconcile with another student, who is expecting his baby. The couple’s friends, after planning their own wedding celebration tribute, are chatting about urban myths, and not just in a casual way; they are fascinated by events that are rumoured to have happened at the campus hospital. More exciting, though, is that popular small-screen student heartthrob of TV soap The Orient Express is also due to be on campus. And the mysterious Dr. Fish, whose name is more self-generated as he appears to have limited qualifications, is wandering around with a new found companion. Suddenly people start dying. The victims appear to have a seizure and then drop dead. What is to blame? Is it some experimental university disease or something more mythological? Will we ever find out?
Isn’t Anyone Alive? begins as a university based character piece, a nicely filmed drama with theatrical characterisation concerning relationships between the protagonists. Its strong point is that it is not entirely clear about what the over-riding premise is going to be, as this is revealed in slow student deliberations and the gradually emerging sense of dread that initially appears to be spooky chit-chat but becomes apparently genuinely lethal. In many ways this could place Isn’t Anyone Alive? in the category of campus horror, something the wacky urban myth plot device might suggest (this is not, we hasten to point out, another Urban Legend (1998) remake), or perhaps a scientifically based experimentation drama. But instead this is, at heart, an existential comedy. So, yes, there are bodies. Dead bodies. Lots of them. But the absurdity of the situations and characterisations, together with the relationships (are they boyfriend and girlfriend, brother and sister, boyfriend and boyfriend or just talking?) and encounters make for a piece that is entirely different to anything you would expect a horror film, a social drama, or indeed a comedy to be. Gakuryu Ishii directs with such apparent ease that the developing plot becomes at once sillier and increasingly nihilistic as the film progresses. At times the humour is sick but fun, most notably when considering the fate of the TV idol, at other times the deaths are shocking. So drama, horror and black comedy it is then, something that Ishii accomplishes with a deliberate disregard for narrative convention, coupled with musical accompaniment that ranges from pop to rock to synthesized classical as befits his distinctly diverse characters.
Think Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) with more humour (or rather, just humour) and a hipper soundtrack, Isn’t Anyone Alive? is easy to watch multiple character apocalyptic film-making. Deliberately dumb fun.