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Far East Extreme: Care for a Bloody Good Game of “TAG”?

Thursday, March 19, 2020 | Opinion

Thanks to the globalization of the media, western audiences have gotten more and more access to one of Japan’s more dubious exports, the world of “tarento.” These oftentimes C or D-list actors, models, and comedians make up the bulk of panel shows, commentate on the news of the day, and sometimes offer a witty quip or catchphrase. Occasionally, one of them stars in a movie to cash in on their five minutes of fame, and they are generally forgotten after that. TAG is a fascinating movie: it seems like a run-of-the-mill commercial horror film starring Terrace House co-host Reina Triendl and a motley crew of teen idols as school kids in cute school uniforms getting killed. Again, these come out in Japan literally all the time, and for every Battle Royale there are 10 Assassination Classroom or Lesson of Evils. So how do you know when you’ve got a good-un? Well, how many of these are directed by someone as talented as Sion Sono? We covered Sono’s earlier work, the experimental Strange Circus, on the first edition of this column. When it comes to a Sono film, literally anything is possible, from teen suicide to biker gangs from the future. So what does TAG bring to the table?

The movie begins with Mitsuko on a bus with her classmates, perhaps on some sort of trip. We are shown what seem to be typical teen film archetypes: Mitsuko is a quiet type, and writes poetry. Absolutely none of this matters, because not 5 minutes into the film all of her classmates are decapitated and Mitsuko is on the run, seemingly chased by nothing more than a murderous gust of wind. Unlike other films where you wait in anticipation for the big scare to come, TAG is a marathon that keeps a fast pace throughout and rarely lets up for long. There are plenty of blood bath films like this, but unlike classics like Evil Dead with its focus on inventive effects and sight gags, TAG somehow manages to tell a great story as well, without a whole lot of setup or characterization.

This is possible in part due to a great supporting cast, anchored by the incomparable Yuki Sakurai as Aki. Sakurai gives weight to most of the best bits of dialogue in the script, and also handles the horrific physical acting admirably; of all the forgettable “Final Girl’s best friend” roles, Aki is the best version of this archetype I’ve seen in a while. Triendl is also no slouch and shows off her acting chops, even in long takes with no dialogue, simply by how natural she acts and how palpable her fear is. Even the supporting cast who have much less screen time like Ami Tomibe as Sur, manage to come to life in a way that isn’t too hackneyed or overly archetypal. As for co-star Shinoda Mariko, everyone’s favorite waitress turned teen idol sensation, to illustrate her role in the story is a bit of a spoiler, but suffice to say her and fellow idol Erina Mano operate in a manner most similar to that of the cast of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In that movie, the changeup was necessitated by the real life death of Heath Ledger, but this time around it is strictly for story purposes, and makes admirable use of this conceit. Of all the cast, Erina Mano is actually a regular in Sono’s films, but doesn’t really do much here. Another thing that is rare for a film of this type is the rather impressive stuntwork on display, much of which looks very seamless even when the pop stars start body-slamming each other.

“Unlike other films where you wait in anticipation for the big scare to come, TAG is a marathon that keeps a fast pace throughout and rarely lets up for long.”

If this film was simply good acting and a good script I’d be plenty satisfied, but Sion Sono has a way of always letting us know he’s behind the camera. Even with no obvious adversary, we get the sense that Mitsuko is in danger just by the how the camera itself seems to view her as prey. Scratch that, this whole crew (minus one very specific group of individuals) is made up of pros. Of course, the most noteworthy thing about a scene with teenagers being decapitated on a bus is the dead teenagers on the bus, but Sono also gives us a window into their truly beautiful surroundings. The wide birds-eye view of the forests on set seem to come out of some nature documentary, and when combined with the Game of Thrones-like epic soundtrack, complete with a chorus and strings, truly elevate the film from the very beginning. How many horror films have such beautiful nature shots? Ravenous comes to mind, but it’s also true that I simply think about that movie quite often. Speaking of TAG’s score, the soundtrack is a whole grab bag of styles, from classical, to Lynch-esque slow jams and even heavy metal, courtesy of the interestingly named Glim Spanky. The diversity is welcome, and fits the respective scenes like a glove.

TAG’s primary strength is that in a genre full of clichés it can make use of familiar themes and motifs while being entirely unpredictable. That includes the antagonist: this unseen force that pursues Mitsuko throughout the film. Who is the bad guy in this film? Zombies? Vampires? How about life? You will be kept guessing till the end, up to the films strange, yet satisfying conclusion. What is not satisfying however, is the low-grade CG blood and explosions. We horror fans have come to expect that more and more practical effects are being replaced by computer graphics; the monsters are rarely animatronic puppets or guys in rubber suits anymore, and there is little need for gruesome stunts when it can all be simulated. This is fine and all, but when you have a film that uses both practical and CG effects for fake blood, they both have to look equally good. The weird thing is that the normal fake blood used in certain scenes is fine; one wonders why they bothered with CG in the first place! The explosions, meanwhile, look like green screen effects that might be at home in a youtube video made by one guy. This is so strange, because horror effects can still look great in low budget films, but on major projects by respected directors you can still find stuff that looks cheap in a bad way.

Movies that look like TAG tend to throw in some really ham-fisted message in a half-assed attempt to give it depth: maybe the main character was abused or had an otherwise traumatic childhood, maybe the two love interests were together in a past life, maybe the main character stole the bad guys lunch money years ago and he’s held a grudge ever since. Few Japanese horror films offer smart and incisive commentary on real life to the extent that TAG does, and none of them are as subtle. Even the message-heavy experimental works of Terayama are pretty blunt about what it is they are trying to say, but TAG demands that you pay attention and think to your own lives, and I really commend Sono and crew for how they handle this. This is topped off by a poignant ending that proves once again how showing is better than telling. You would think that TAG would be weighed down by these themes, but it’s actually a lot of fun. It also must be said that this is an unapologetically feminist film, and includes gutsy and well-thought out commentary on sex as well. Don’t like feminist horror films? Watch this one to see how good they can be, and how absolutely necessary those themes are to the essence of the piece. The roller coaster ride that this movie offers begs the question: Is this art or pop entertainment? No idea, but I love it!

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.