Running Time: 107 min.
Unrated (content, including violence and mild language, is comparable to a PG-13 rating in the U.S.)
Directed by: Takuji Kitamura
Written by: Hirotoshi Kobayashi
Adapted from the graphic novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Starring: Yôsuke Asari, Terutaka Hasegawa, Hayato Ichihara, Itsuji Itao, Haruma Miura, Maho Nonami
Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge isn’t quite the movie the title or the trailer suggest it will be. After witnessing flashy snippets of a young, female warrior doing battle with a hulking, cloaked behemoth lugging a massive chainsaw, I expected we were in for some zany, hyperactive silliness like Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police. As it turns out, NHCE isn’t remotely in the same genre as either of those movies; surprisingly, it’s a teen rom-com.
Huh? You mean it’s got a love story shoehorned into the battles with the giant chainsaw man? No, I mean it’s primarily a teen love story with the strange monster providing the film’s metaphorical layer and a few choice action scenes. If John Hughes had made a movie in Japan and replaced the arrogant boyfriend or the overbearing parent with a gigantic reaper wielding a gas-powered weapon for a hand, it would more or less look exactly like Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge.
Young schoolboy Yosuke has been having a rather rough time of things ever since his friend Noto died in a motor-bike accident. Always living in his dead friend’s shadow and staging reckless stunts, Yosuke is just haphazardly cruising through life when he runs into the bewitching but somber Eri. Yosuke knows Eri has issues right off the bat, because her issues try to grind his face off the first time he meets her.
Eri’s afterschool activities consist of essentially only one thing: dueling with a phantasmal giant who has that titular chainsaw attached where his right arm should be. She employs a host of weapons in this crusade, and the giant’s attacks are always telegraphed by an unnatural snowfall, even indoors. If Eri can withstand the monster’s assault and impale his heart, he flies away, back to—wait for it—the moon. Yosuke is obviously a bit daunted by that initially, but he sees it as an opportunity to once again challenge the echoing words of his lost friend, who had a habit of calling him gutless. Eri is brooding and lonely, but she welcomes Yosuke’s presence, even if it is grudgingly at first.
Then, the romance begins. What follows isn’t a polished, trite teen romp or a frenzied action pic, racing past the courtship to get to the fight scenes. Instead, it’s a light and occasionally delicate drama about dealing with grief, loss and mortality and putting it all in a perspective that still allows one to live with joy. Surprisingly, the chainsaw battles are an integral part of the central courtship.
Yosuke and Eri ride around on Yosuke’s bike, get coffee, talk, go to the amusement park and dance around their obvious feelings for each other like any other reluctant teen movie couple. But death lurks at the center of both of their lives, even if it’s haunting Yosuke’s past and dominating Eri’s present. So, every night when Eri goes off to fight Chainsaw Man and Yosuke scurries behind to protect her, it’s really the dark aspects of their individual lives they are confronting.
Sometimes the epic battles aren’t even depicted on screen. We see Eri charging into the fray with a golf club or an umbrella, and then we see the two kids sitting in the aftermath of victory, glancing nervously at one another. It is a nice touch in a film that plays everything light as a feather. The battles that do appear on screen are visualized with an energetic camera style that isn’t aggressive but rather playful, and the special effects create a world that is just real enough without taking away the manga-esque elements of the action sequences.
Best yet, Hayato Ichihara and Megumi Seki have a quirky chemistry with each other; he manages to make bumbling look charming and she gives defensive melancholy a fetching sheen. The whole thing is deliciously odd, but it works. In his own way, so does the chainsaw man, who never becomes less than mysterious but occupies a powerful psychological space in Eri’s mind.
It is rather a shame that a listless exercise like Twilight is garnering the attention of teenagers while this film, which tackles a similar theme, premise and audience will most likely never be seen by any of the vamp pic’s fans. NHCE is a strange and curious movie, and its success isn’t a massive triumph but rather, a small victory.
Negative Happy, Chainsaw Edge is entertaining and engaging and it will likely ensnare even the viewers who come to it expecting something gorier, ghastlier and more twisted. But, its real strength and its real story will work best for those in their teenage years. Maybe a feisty, live-action manga adaptation like the upcoming Scott Pilgrim VS the World will pave the way for more films willing to take a quirky walk on the wild side of teen drama. Then, perhaps, Chainsaw Edge will get its due.