If you were to splice together elements of Blade and Battle Royale, you'd get Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island, a tolerable live-action take on a Japanese manga of the same name. Blood spurts, blades fly, fangs shoot out and a cluster of high-school friends scurry to survive (and ultimately conquer) the wilds of a vampire-infested island, only there's no competition or reward other than locating -- and saving -- one of the kids' older, stronger, sword-wielding brother. Like its influences, it's heavier on the action and fast-moving tension than jump-scare horror or grotesqueness, with a plot that's barely compelling enough to support the brisk-moving activity. But instead of capitalizing on the streamlined story, this bloody hybrid never fully enthralls within the copious bustle and blunt-headed anime-esque posturing, leaving only atmosphere, visual gris-gris, and a faint lingering curiosity over which characters will survive to fuel its momentum. Surprisingly, it's almost enough to outshine its problems.
Higanjima doesn't start that way, though; in fact, even though it prepares for little more than a hack-'n-slash romp, the beginning reveals some excitement and promise. We're shown a high-school guy named Akira (Hideo Ishiguro) as he's running away from a group of hooligans, who are intermittently stopped by a scattering of his friends using their assorted talents: a bespectacled nerd causing a minor explosion, an archery-savvy girl launching an arrow in their trajectory, and a thuggish street kid who, well, drops boxes and acts tough. Once a beautiful female stranger halts Akira, pulls him to the side, and tells him that his estranged brother, Atsushi (Dai Watanabe), is stuck on an island that's overrun by bloodsuckers, he and his compadres make their way on-boat to the spooky, mist-covered island. At the very least, it suggests that chemical explosions, arrows, and deft blade work might claim the lives of some vampires, similar to Blade II's host of vampire killers -- only, you know, with novices up to the task.
But once they get to the island -- filled with ominous ghost towns, eerie forests, abandoned forts and byzantine underground temples -- Higanjima opts to tell the island's back-story (introducing us to the grand villain) and address why Atsushi's there in the first place, but it does so while removing the teenagers out of the fray of battle and into a Sophie's Choice-like imprisonment scenario that's not as frightening as it believes itself to be, or should be at this juncture. While this allows the island's history to emerge, which should be intriguing since it adds a creepy historical essence to the story, the script handles it with blunt dialogue and overstuffed flashback-heavy exposition that's almost like listening to a comic being read aloud, proving anticlimactic and uneven against the film's intro. On top of that, it occurs while also watching a bland, white-faced knockoff of Lestat de Lioncourt posture and talk in the way every grand old villainous vampire does: puffed-up and full of misguided posthumous wisdom.
All that's tolerable for the semi-schlocky B-movie anime adaptation that Higanjima seems like it's going to be, which can either move towards lavish blood-spurting action or skin-crawling horror at this fork in the road (or, if ambitious, try and nail both) and simply force us not to care about any storytelling missteps. But even while set against gritty claustrophobic environments and with danger looming around every corner (or up in the trees or behind crumbled ruins) while everyone's fleeing from vamps, it can't find firm footing in either arena, instead gravitating towards maudlin melodrama, of all things, concerning its shallow characters. While there's plenty of the red stuff to be seen, I'm hard-pressed to remember much of how it's spilled -- aside from knowing that it's not in creative use of arrows or chemicals, and little in the way of blade-wielding -- but it's easy to remember the weepy romantic beats between two of the friends and their eventual dejection towards another. I suppose that's part of the territory in entering a manga adaptation, but it doesn't gel here.
What's frustrating about Higanjima is that it's got a well-dressed, concentrated skeleton underneath its tepid action-horror flesh, with moody darkness encapsulating the steadily pace it builds. A few swordplay beats liven it up -- some occur during pertinent flashbacks, while others that involve a ninja resistance fighter and the bald-faced Akira kicking ass on the island -- while a slow simmer of plot contrivances and vampire-on-human tension allows the stylized brawling to persist. And some lively elements crop up in the action that counterbalances its sludgy story: menacing flying humanoid imps, hordes of conical-hat-adorned vampires storming a stony ruin, and a threatening (CG) monster tearing through underground passages. This is the stuff that should've been more evenly-spread throughout the script, instead of crammed into the last-third of its overlong two-hour stretch. Even if there's something inherently watchable because of its pale strengths, it's a crap-shoot whether it's worth slogging through the atmospheric but tiresome midsection to get to the brewing bloody chaos stirring below the surface.
Video and Audio:
Higanjima has one thing going for it: dark, detailed cinematography, and FUNimation's 2.39:1 1080p AVC treatment really delivers on all fronts in regards to the visuals. It's an inherently dark firm with thick contrast and persistent black levels, to which the high-definition disc offers inky depths that both retain the shadowy disposition and neglect to compromise the details kept within. Splashes of crimson spread into the low-color image in ways that prevent the colors from bleeding or appearing overzealous, and the textures in clothing, the sheens against blades, and the minutiae within the expanses of exterior shots are consistently razor-sharp. You'll see the detail in wisps of fog and the splatter / trickling of blood elegantly, while seeing no harsh instances of contrast crush or hazy detail. In short, it's damn-near perfect.
Sprinting step-for-step at the same pace as the visuals, the Dolby TrueHD track (yeah, I know!) feeds its aural design to the expanses of the sound stage to punchy, aggressive results. Persistent sounds of running through the woods, hand-to-hand warfare, and other atmospheric flourishes grace the rear-channel speakers with a consistent stream of activity, while the dialogue floats sturdily in the central core with aplomb. The clang of swords, the billow of fire, and the slapdash tumbling of a monster through stone passageways pummel the high- and low-frequency spectrums, to which both clank and explode and zip with respectable, if slightly restrained, strength. As with most of FUNimation's offerings, the English subtitle translation is damn-near impeccable, with clean readable text appearing just below the image negative.
Aside from a Theatrical Trailer (2:03), FUNimation have tossed in a Making of Higanjima (45:05, 16x9) feature that, on the surface, appears to be a run-of-the-mill press-kit collage of behind-the-scenes shots and interviews. Unlike others I've seen come out of Asian territories, though, this one actually follows a self-aware documentary structure that reveals a lot of insightful content about the actors, the shooting schedules, preparing for scenes, and other elements that are sincerely compelling. You'll see some green-screen footage tossed in with a few stunt takes involving falling boulders and other stunt explosions, as the narration adds punch with a few interjected points -- though he almost sounds like a golf announcer at times.
This two-disc set -- arranged in a DVD-sized case -- also arrives with a standard-definition DVD presentation of the film, which contains the same trailer and making-of documentary as the Blu-ray disc. No promotional inserts or other materials have been made available.
It's worth checking out the escape from Higanjima once for the bursts of stylized action, the vampiric blood-shedding, and the overall style contained within this action-horror hybrid from Japan. While the creaks in its script both derive from the plot's anime roots and blunt writing in itself, it's one of the occasions where the pure flair behind its orchestration can propel its more lively aspects beyond the potential it wastes by concentrating on humdrum youthful melodrama while on an island filled with vampires. It's not scary, not wall-to-wall with action, but it moves with enough briskness and intermittent action beats for it to be well worth a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site