An overly flippant title for what is an alternately staid and savagely gruesome exercise, “Over Your Dead Body” is the latest by the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, who is always a mixed bag, or mixed bag of nuts, but seems to be channeling his considerable audacity in formalist directions – at least at the beginning of this long and windy story.
The movie he has created, and seems at some point to have lost interest in, occurs at the intersection of a staged costume drama with its origins in Kabuki, and which tumbles into the lives of present-day actors who will reflect all too uncomfortably/violently the plotline of adultery and murder being played out on the stage. It is not a new idea. Whether it’s been done with multiple decapitations before is another story.
Miike freaks will have a hard time waiting for the heads to roll. The director certainly tries to grab his viewers’ interest, opening with a sexual coupling between the unmarried actors involved, Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) and Miyuke (Ko Shibasaki). And then the action, as it were, moves to the theater, where Kosuke is starting an affair with a younger co-star (Miho Nakanishi) and essentially recreating the adulterous story being played out at the tech rehearsal that’s under way: In a story that will seem familiar (and not just to Japanese audiences), an unemployed samurai schemes to marry a young heiress and when her father objects, kills him and stuff him in a barrel. They marry and she bears him a son, but a better offer comes along: A sinister figure offers money and connections if the samurai marries his daughter (all the modern principals play their corresponding Edo-period characters), and figures out a way to eliminate the unwanted family. An evil witch-like character enters the story, and sets about poisoning the wife and child. The samurai helps facilitate their departure.
In both worlds, it is only when the Miyuke character and her historical counterpart get wise to the betrayals involved that arteries begin exploding with startling regularity. Getting there, however, takes some indulgence on the part of the viewer, more than regular Miike fans would seem inclined to provide.
The play itself moves from the theater into a wider world that is often quite lovely, and photographed spectacularly; the stage itself rotates, and that device provides much of the visual interest in the film, which moves back and forth between eras and settings with considerable grace, and grace notes that don’t always make total sense: There’s a recurring shot of a male Siamese fighting fish, swimming in a tank alone, which is how they must be kept to keep the males from killing each other. It’s a beautiful picture, and provides a kind of respite from the dark feudal world of the main story.
But the conflicts within the film are between men and women, so the image not only doesn’t enhance any themes of conflict at work here; it actually seems to contradict them. But it’s quite possible that Miike was seeing something else. Viewers might consider doing the same.
“Over Your Dead Body” premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.