I was prepared for Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge. Chainsaw wielding brutes. Schoolgirls with killer moves. Schoolboys with awesomecrazycool hair. I was ready for all of it and yet I was surprised. While Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge features all the anticipated ingredients, it definitely has a very different idea as to how they should be combined. Rather than a schlocky gorefest, we get a thoughtful look at the nature of grief filtered through adolescent sensibilities.
"Damn, he topped me."
These are the words used by Yosuke (Hayato Ichihara) when referring to his friend, Noto (Yosuke Asari) who died in a motorcycle accident. Odd as they may seem, they represent his way of dealing with a grief that has no outward expression. He feels numb and incomplete which makes him do foolish things, like stealing food, in order to feel anything at all. One day, on his way back to his dorm, he meets a pretty girl who sits sullen, waiting for some unavoidable appointment. Even as he questions her, we watch as snow begins to fall from the sky acting as the harbinger of what is to follow. All of a sudden, a massive, hulking cloaked monster falls from the sky, bearing a threatening chainsaw in one gnarled hand. Much to Yosuke's surprise, the girl efficiently dispatches the monster with some quick thinking and even quicker throwing knives.
"The sadder I become, the stronger he gets."
After their stunning first encounter, Yosuke offers to buy the girl a meal as a token of his gratitude for saving him from the monster. Over the course of lunch, he learns that her name is Eri (Megumi Seki) and that she has been having an awful month. This marks the time when she first encountered the chainsaw wielding monster. He came to her while she was in mourning at a funeral. This was when she knew that she had to defeat him in order to be at peace again. Fortunately for Eri, she also discovered that she had been gifted with new powers including agility and a facility with weapons. Although Eri refuses to disclose whose funeral it was, we can tell that the extent of her loss is vast and her sadness is all-consuming. What else could compel someone to risk life and limb, night after night, in battle against a violent force of nature?
"Would you like to eat stew with me?"
Yosuke finding himself without purpose, decides to help Eri during her daily skirmishes with the chainsaw monster. While he isn't a very good fighter, he is content with giving Eri rides on his bicycle to the battle site du jour and taking care of her after the monster has been defeated. Although initially resistant to Yosuke's aid, Eri gradually comes to rely on him for moral support. With Yosuke by her side, Eri's strength grows in leaps and bounds making it that much easier for her to face the monster. Despite being cultivated in the most unusual of circumstances, Yosuke and Eri's relationship is both cute and slightly goofy. This is perfectly captured in the scene when Eri longs to cook for someone and asks Yosuke if he would like to have stew with her. It's a perfectly innocent request but it carries the weight of their non-verbalized love for each other. Before Yosuke really has a chance to act on his feelings a wrench gets thrown in the works. Due to circumstances seemingly out of his control, he may not be around much longer. Without him, Eri may fall under the chainsaw in her next run-in with the monster. While the resolution is nothing you haven't already figured out, I won't spoil it here.
Using the novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (Welcome to the N.H.K) as his source, director Takuji Kitamura has made an interesting decision as to which elements of the film to bring into the foreground. While many others would have chosen to concentrate on Eri's fight scenes with the monster at the expense of character development, Kitamura has framed the story in such a way that the focus always remains squarely on the characters. It shouldn't come as a surprise since the movie makes it apparent early on, but the monster is simply an embodiment of Eri's grief. Its desire to destroy Eri is her self-destructive sadness made literal. By choosing to keep the fight scenes short, when they are shown at all, Kitamura makes his desire explicit. He would rather examine the healing process between two damaged individuals than dwell on the ways they choose to punish themselves. Although we get some well-choreographed action sequences at the start and finish of the film, the fights are almost beside the point for the most part. Some will balk at this given how the film is being marketed, but I found this approach quite refreshing.
As a character driven piece, it is fortunate that the major roles in the film are enacted so convincingly. Ichihara portrays Yosuke with the nervousness that accompanies a tight-knit group of friends falling apart. After Noto's death, Yosuke's interactions with his other friend represent what it feels like when any balanced relationship loses its stability. Having inhabited a specific role within the group for so long, Yosuke feels adrift. His environment has changed without giving him any clue as to how he must change with it. Ichihara conveys this confusion without making it painfully clichéd. Yosuke's inability to move past Noto's death is mirrored by the paralysis within Eri's soul. Seki perfectly captures the crushing silence of Eri's self-inflicted torment. She engages Yosuke and us even as she tries to isolate herself from the world. Watching her slowly let down her guard for Yosuke is truly heartwarming. The fact that Seki kicks ass in her action scenes doesn't hurt either.
Despite having so many positives in its corner, there are a few minor flaws to be found in this film. We get some unnecessary comic relief in the form of the quirky dorm monitor who picks on Yosuke. My other quibble is with the pace of the film. It tends to lag during the final third, especially when it should be picking up steam. This is largely due to a plot contrivance that threatens to take Yosuke out of the picture, forcing Eri to fight alone. I could have done without this since it just padded out the running time without giving us any more insight into the characters. Another odd choice during the climax was the placement of an inspirational music-video style song that was supposed to give Yosuke a renewed sense of purpose. I'm not sure what J-Pop has to do with fighting your inner demons but this song was just a momentum-killer for me.
The movie was presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. While the picture was fairly clean and the colors had a nice pop to them, I did notice some occasional shimmer which may be due to the interlaced nature of the image.
The English audio was presented in a 5.1 Surround Sound mix and a 2.0 Stereo track. While both the tracks were clear and free from defects, I chose to watch the film with the surround sound mix. The mix was fairly lively especially during the action scenes. There were English subtitles on this release.
There were only 2 extras to be found on this release. The first was a trailer for the title feature. Next up we had a featurette about going Behind the Scenes with "Oresama" (11:17). This extra focused on the recording of the J-Pop song used during the film. While informative, I found the choice of subject matter pretty odd. A more comprehensive featurette about the making of the film would have been preferable.
Watching a movie called Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge, I expected a regular gorefest but instead got a sweet coming of age drama focused on rising above the sadness that exists within. There were a few action scenes scattered throughout but this film was definitely much more concerned with the Negative Happy than it was with the Chainsaw Edge. I appreciated this since it helped the film stand out from the pack. Some misplaced comic relief and a lagging third act didn't dampen my enthusiasm too much. Despite being light on extras, the unusual content makes this a release worth watching. Recommended.