Shunji Iwai is one of the most reliably adventurous mainstream directors in world cinema today. A quick look at his recent output: After his epic 2015 chronicle of a lonely woman and the Internet (A Bride for Rip Van Winkle), he made an animated prequel to one of his best films (The Case of Hana & Alice), an hour-long movie about Bae Doona as an alienated housewife that was actually an extended commercial for Nescafé (Chang Ok’s Letter), and two versions of the same film made back to back, one in China and one in Japan (Last Letter). So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his latest, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8, is an adaptation of a COVID-boredom challenge by Shin Godzilla co-director Shinji Higuchi, wherein a variety of celebrities would make short films about their kaiju defeating COVID called, naturally, “Kaiju Defeat COVID.”
Takumi Saitoh (star of the upcoming Shin Ultraman) buys a kaiju egg online and talks about it with us in videos and with his friends in Zoom chats. One of the friends is a director who is a kaiju expert, another is a chef who is out of work thanks to the shutdown, the third is played by Non (star of Ohku Akiko’s Hold Me Back), who purchases her own creature online, an alien that can’t be seen on video. The kaiju start out as tiny, pea-sized balls but evolve and take on various forms as the days go by. Takumi is continually perplexed by what his kaiju is and what its final form will be. Is it a Windom? A Miclas? A Ballonga? A Devilman? Will it, as he hopes, defeat COVID, or will it destroy the world? (If it does the latter, he tells us, he will truly be sorry.) There are a couple of interesting ideas here: the matter-of-factness of a world where every popular Japanese genre cycle reflects an actual reality (successive waves of kaiju, aliens, ghosts, etc, our inability to understand “what COVID means,” and our powerlessness in the face of it, along with the widespread false belief that the cure might be worse than the virus itself.
The isolation and desperation of the shutdown are palpable in the videos, in which creative people slowly lose their minds from lack of social contact. It’s also a lightly funny parody of YouTube culture, the kinds of videos my kids watch that don’t make any sense to me (Takumi is particularly fond of a woman who live streams from her bathtub — fully clothed and with no water, of course). At times, the film veers dangerously close to cuteness, often a danger with Iwai, but as with his 1998 film April Story, which I think is his best work but which some find overly saccharine, he grounds it with just enough melancholy and deadpan weirdness to avoid that adorable fate.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 3.