My current prevailing theory about pop-culture success in Japan is that it gets you adapted. Novel, manga, live-action TV series, live-action movie, animated series, animated movie, drama CD, cellphone story — if you create any one of the above and it’s a hit, odds are it’ll be cross-adapted into every single other medium on that list, too. That doesn’t guarantee any of the results will be readable or watchable; just that you’ll receive that much exposure.
Enter Otsuichi, one of the more recent J-culture superstars to do the Crossover Shuffle. His short-story collection Zoo has shown up as a manga, and now been turned into a five-feature anthology film along the lines of Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams. That compilation sometimes departed heavily from its source material, for the same reason Richard III was fun to stage in a proto-fascist WWII England and Kurosawa made grand, bold images out of staging King Lear and Macbeth as samurai dramas. Zoo sticks closely to its inspiration for the most part, and deviates from it when it helps.
You don’t have to look any further than the first episode, “Kazari and Yōko” (dir. Ryu Kaneda) for one case where it was probably in their best interest to deviate from the original material. I despised the original story — it felt repugnant and exploitive, and didn’t even have a terribly clever twist as a redeeming quality. Twins Kazari and Yōko have ended up as polar opposites in the eyes of their mother: the former perfect in every respect, the latter a brutalized cur fed her sister’s table scraps without even her own bed (she sleeps on the kitchen floor). A friendly old woman in the neighborhood dotes on Yōko, and soon the girl’s hatching a plan to free herself from both her tormentors.
I admit I winced going in, but the live-action version is actually not bad at all thanks to some judicious dramatic restraint. The mother is more of a pitiable, alcoholic wretch instead of evil incarnate, and the abuse itself is thankfully downplayed — it’s mostly entirely offscreen, and things like a gratuitous scene where Mom threatens to stick Yōko’s hand in a blender have been dropped altogether. That doesn’t make the underlying story any less manipulative, though — it just makes the manipulation less egregious. The filmmakers do deserve bonus points for the dual casting of Ryōko Kobayashi as Kazari and Yōko; she’s excellent in both roles.
“Seven Rooms” (dir: Masanori Adachi), one of the better stories in the original, has lost nothing in translation. Imagine being trapped inside a real-life version of one of those puzzles where you have to choose your own survival over someone else’s. In this case, it’s a brother and sister who wake up and find themselves in a dungeon constructed by a serial killer. They piece together an escape route by talking to their cellmates and paying close attention to their surroundings — the way all this information is compressed and conveyed through the filmmaking is masterful — and in the end the brother and sister realize that only one of them might make it out of there alive depending on the final strategy they employ.
Interesting how this episode’s appropriately dank and grim, but the ingenuity and determination of the heroes provides hope, and even a certain poignancy that doesn’t feel forced on the material. This is also one of the very few times, in my experience, where a movie adaptation of a story squared almost perfectly with the vision of it I had in my head. My only real gripe — and it’s an I-wouldn’t-have-done-that complaint, nothing more — is that it goes on for a couple of shots longer than it really needs to. See it and tell me if it wouldn’t have been fine if they just cut to black right at the last flashback between the kid and the sister. You’ll know what I mean.
“SO-far” (dir: Komiya Masatetsu) opens with a premise most people may assume is a Sixth Sense ripoff: after a car accident, a young boy’s parents seem to have become invisible to each other. The boy sees both of them; they only see the boy, and communicate to each other through him. Is one of them dead? Both of them? The kid himself? The answer turns out to be a good deal more mundane than that, but the poignant tone of the whole thing elevates it from being banal. It’s also worth watching for the presence of veteran Japanese actor Tetta Sugimoto as the father.
“The Poem of Collected Sunlight” (dir: Junpei Mizusaki) uses motion-capture technology and a hybrid animation style — it looks halfway between CGI and hand-drawn work — to provide exactly the right tone to one of my favorite stories from the book. The original had the simplicity and effectiveness of a fable, and so does the version we get here — and it’s gorgeous to look at, too. Finally, “ZOO” itself (dir: Hiroshi Ando) has an appropriately grimy and SE7EN-ish look, as befitting a story about a man creating a kind of time-lapse photo-essay by taking pictures of his dead girlfriend’s decaying body. The film version maintains the ambiguity of the source material by taking the story apart and putting it back together: it’s deliberately not clear how much of what’s going on is subjective. What matters most is the protagonist’s (fractured) state of mind, and this segment conveys that quite well.
So there’s your adaptation: four good segments plus one I’m only dubious about because of my own previous distaste for the adapted story. What’s most surprising about Zoo as a whole is how sedate it is — maybe by design, as a way of making the product that much more accessible to whichever audience might not normally opt for this sort of thing. Call it “J-horror lite”, if the term doesn’t make you cringe too badly.