Another Decade with Takashi Miike is a series of essays on the 2010s films of the Japanese maverick, following Notebook's earlier survey of Miike's first decade of the 21st century.
As the Gods Will (2014) picks up where Lesson of the Evil (2012) left off, with a massacre at a high school. Again, Takashi Miike is considering the unspeakable—namely, the wholesale slaughter of children in the place we most expect them to be safe—but there are some critical differences this time. Lesson of the Evil followed the perpetrator of an atrocity for months (and about an hour of screen time) before he shot up a high school, thereby acclimating viewers to how terrible he could be; the massacre didn’t seem to come out of nowhere. As the Gods Will, on the other hand, presents a scene of multiple homicide mere minutes after the title cards appear. It’s as though Miike were forcing viewers to accept the film’s premise or check out immediately. But while the violence of Gods is awful to think about, it’s easier to stomach than that of Lesson. For one thing, the imagery is less graphic; for another, the perpetrators this time aren’t human, but rather giant talking toys from outer space.
Because of this key detail, the massacre in As the Gods Will seems downright absurd. Heightening the ridiculousness, the killer toys are slick, computer-animated creatures whose design evokes the big-budget kiddie entertainments of Pixar and DreamWorks. I’ve always found those movies to be somewhat soulless in their painstaking attention to detail—they give the impression that the filmmakers were trying to astonish us with their sophisticated technology, and that the story is less important the visual spectacle. I find it telling that the worlds these movies present are devoid of real people, since people don’t seem to matter very much in the films anyway. And so, the spectacle of CG cuties massacring live-action teenagers makes some degree of sense; it fulfills the unspoken promise of CGI to obliterate the sight of human imperfection in movies. A younger Miike might have made an outré joke out of this in the fashion of The Happiness of the Katakuris or Visitor Q (both 2001), playing up the aliens’ cuteness and scoring laughs off the cartoon splatter they create. But As the Gods Will is a film by the Miike of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011); the violence is painful, and the director delivers it with rigorous control over cinematic form.
Miike and his creative team integrate the special effects so seamlessly with real actors and locations that, within a few minutes, the CG aliens don’t register as self-referential jokes. In fact, the movie is generally sober in tone; each death is designed to make you gasp or recoil. Miike clearly finds the slaughter of teenagers abhorrent, and so he approaches the material (adapted from a manga series by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura that was originally published between 2011 and 2012) as an extended metaphor for the randomness of teenagers being killed. Here, the deaths are the consequences of children’s games that the aliens force the high school students to play. In the first major sequence of As the Gods Will, the rules of the game at hand are so opaque that they don’t seem to exist at all. The alien in this passage has taken the form of a large Daruma doll, a traditional Japanese figurine modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism. Miike begins the sequence in medias res, after the doll has forced the class to play the familiar children’s game where no one can move until the player who’s “it” has his or her back facing away from the other players. In this version of the game, the losing players’ heads explode—the Daruma doll (who’s “it”) is equipped with deadly laser beams that can obliterate a victim in seconds. The violence is shocking in spite of its cartoonishness (the children’s blood turns to piles of red marbles once it hits a surface); because we don’t understand the murderer’s motives, the deaths seem especially random. Yet the sense of tragedy engendered by the opening passages of As the Gods Will soon dissipates, as Miike introduces elements of action and suspense. Once we find out that the Daruma doll’s game ends when a student manages to cross the room and press a button on its back, we naturally root for the students to win the game—as we will when the survivors find themselves in other, even deadlier challenges.
As the cast of characters quickly dwindles, Miike reserves most of his sympathy for one survivor in particular, a boy named Shun Takahata (Sôta Fukushi). Shun, who also narrates the film, is an apathetic kid who doesn’t like coming to school; in a flashback, we also learn that he once shoplifted from a video game store. The massacre instantly inspires him to reconsider his negative attitude—“God, give me back my boring life!” he complains early on in his narration—and as the story develops, he will apply his native intelligence to help other kids survive the aliens’ sadistic games. The second major set piece of As the Gods Will takes place in the high school gym, where a giant Maneki Neko (one of those white porcelain cats that you find in the entryways to restaurants and stores) is eating students as if they were mice. In the gym, Shun encounters a female friend, Ichika Akimoto (Hirona Yamazaki), from another class; she’s still in a state of shock from seeing her classmates killed by another Daruma doll. Shun attempts to console Ichika before applying his wits to the new game, which requires students to toss a bell through a loop on the giant cat’s neck before the cat eats everyone in the room.
The Maneki Neko sequence introduces another principal character of As the Gods Will, a second delinquent boy named Amaya Takeru (Ryûnosuke Kamiki). Like Shun, Amaya has defined himself to this point by his apathy; unlike Shun, he’s determined to save himself and no one else. “This is God’s will: a world where the strong prey on the weak,” Amaya says to Shun as they fend off the giant cat. He adds, “I’ve always dreamed of such a world.” Amaya takes a perverse interest in seeing Shun outlast his peers; Amaya even works to protect him in subsequent games, in part so he can watch his nemesis writhe with survivor’s guilt. But Shun isn’t undone by his guilt—if anything, it emboldens him to protect as many kids as he can. Some of the more satisfying moments of the film detail Shun standing up to the evil toys, arguing against their arbitrary rules so that more kids don’t die as a result of them. These developments are poignant in that they show Shun shedding his apathy and finding a reason to live amidst so much death.
And how much is so much? The death count of As the Gods Will may be somewhere in the millions. Occasionally Miike cuts away from the primary narrative to adults watching news broadcasts; through these we learn that the aliens have invaded every country on earth and are conducting “games” at every high school they can find. (A strange and memorable detail worth mentioning: the last few surviving kids from each school get transported to a giant cube floating above the nearest major city. I’m not sure if this conceit comes from Miike, screenwriter Hiroyuki Yatsu, or the manga by Kaneshiro and Fujimura, but it’s the sort of thing I always hope to find in a Miike film—a digression so absurdly off-course that it suggests the imagination of a young child.) The revelation that the story takes place against the backdrop of genocide grants poignancy to the moments of downtime between the games, when the surviving kids get to know each other and assert their personalities. Late in the film, Shun tells Ichika that he can’t wait to do boring things with her once the death games are over. It may be the closest Miike has come to communicating a personal philosophy: May we contemplate gruesome death to better appreciate ordinary life.
This message carries special significance in that it’s presented as the realization of a delinquent hero. From Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) to For Love’s Sake (2012), Miike has always displayed his greatest affection for misfit or delinquent kids. He sees in their defiant attitudes and penchant for violence reflections of his own creative proclivities. But where many of Miike’s earlier films suggested he also identified with a nihilistic worldview that attracts so many teenagers, Gods finds him moving towards a perspective that might be described as life-affirming. If there’s a lesson to be learned in Shun’s evolution, it’s that it’s never too late to find one’s moral foundation. What a worthy theme for our current century, when disease, climate crisis, and declining resources place humanity in a more precarious position that ever before. As the Gods Will may communicate a common despair over the fate of the next generation, but it’s the film’s optimism that resonates.