Tsutomu Takahashi’s Alive and Ryuhei Kitamura’s Alive

Did you know Tsutomu Takahashi’s manga Alive had been adapted into a live action film by none other than Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Midnight Meat Train) ?

Shoulder shot of Tenshu, main protagonist in the Alive manga, who stares angrily at the reader.
Tsutomu Takahashi’s Tenshu

Tsutomi Takahashi, born in 1965 in Tokyo, Japan, is a mangaka who began his career by being selected by Afternoon! magazine for their Four Seasons Contest¹ in 1987. This small victory enabled him to publish Jiraishin, a one-shot about a detective solving violent crimes around Tokyo in 1989, he would then go on and make a series out of it which would span from 1991 to 1998 across 19 volumes. This made him one of the most famous mangaka of the 90s, he also had notorious assistants² such as Tsutomu Nihei (Blame!, Knights of Sidonia) and Syuho Sato (Say Hello to Black Jack) but his most famous series were certainly Sky High, a manga in which a priestss asks the dead to chose what they want to do in the after-life, and Neun, in which a Nazi soldier tries to save an infant clone of Hitler. Thing is Takahashi was once a Bosozuku, a Japanese biker gang member, and a rock singer³ ; all of this before he decided to try and be a mangaka. In a way, this might inform us on the subject he likes to treat, the people he likes to talk about.

In Alive, which he published in 1999, we follow the story of Tenshu Yashiro, a man waiting in the Hallway of Death for the murder of four men who raped his girlfriend, and the assassination of said girlfriend. But nothing goes as planned when two scientists enter the picture to give him a deal. He would escape his death sentence if he renounces his existence and follow them for an experiment. Tenshu who’s really afraid of dying, accepts and soon finds himself staying in a vast empty room with another death-sentenced prisoner, a gangster. They both get new clothes food, alcohol and everything could be well, that is, until the wall starts closing in and they both learn they have to fight to the death to gain access to a woman. Alive isn’t about a tv show or anything. As a reader, we will soon learn through the scientist that the woman is infected by a strange kind of parasite which seems to be evil itself and gives its host superpower while devouring his persona. It’s sort of like the idea which supports the Dolph-Lungren-starring, Mike Mendez’s movie Don’t Kill It. But since Mendez made his feature in 2016 and Alive was release in 1998, we’re going to assume it was the other way around. Still, when talking of the main concept behind Tsutomu Takahashi’s famous one-shot we must not forget 1995, a year in Japan which saw the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack⁴ , but most importantly the release of one very exceptional book Hideaki Sena’s Parasite Eve, a creation so influential, it soon became a videogame licence.

In Parasite Eve, it’s mitochondria who are the main antagonist. In the novel, a young scientist thinking he’s resurrecting his wife, is, in fact, duplicating a melting pot of sentient mitochondrial DNA who are secretly aiming to eradicate the human race. This genetic nightmare of a concept no doubt played a central role in the conception of a biological evil transmitted through the food chain which sits at the centre of Takahashi’s Alive plot. Truth is, Sena’s book was so important that Koji Suzuki’s second book in his Ring series, called Loop, turns the myth of Sadako into a body horror nightmare à la Parasite Eve. Hell, both book came out before Alive got released, and I am not saying Takahashi plagiarized anyone, I’m just stating that biological evil forces were an important part of Japanese horror subculture in the late 90s, much like vampire used to be the embodiment of horror in late 19th century, England, I’m thinking Stoker’s Dracula, Polidori’s The Vampyre, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, here, to name a few.

A colored cover of Alive, Tenshu is holding the hand of one of the girl as if she was trying to slap him.
An alternative cover to Takahashi’s Alive

The beginning of the new millennium saw the rise of Ryuhei Kitamura. A young aspiring filmmaker who had studied in Australia before coming back to Japan. If his first two efforts, Heat after Dark and Down to Hell were not his most recognized works, Versus, his third movie, combining gun kata with zombies, put Kitamura on Japanese cinema radar. One day, the young director stumbled upon Takahashi’s book in a library, intrigued by the eyes of the protagonist by the raw nature of the lines, Kitamura bought the manga and end up finishing reading it before he even came back home⁵ . The story, the felling it gave him were strong enough for him to call on his producer, Hidemi Satani, bringing up the idea of adapting the manga. Even though, Satani wasn’t really into it, preferring to try and develop a sequel to Versus instead, Kitamura was finally able to convince him. In an interview, Kitamura confidence in this project can be seen when he states: “I wanted to adapt this precise manga for its last page, it’s the strong impression it made upon itself. At the time, I thought that if I could not do any better, surprise the mangaka behind it, I was done as a filmmaker. This was the movie that would prove I wasn’t just a guy only able to shoot zombies jumping unto one another”⁶.

Truth is, Kitamura recognized himself in the character of Tenshu, the condemned man who is at the centre of Takahashi’s creation. The characters, this was what drew Kitamura in the first place, but he wanted to do something else. Thinking the plot was too simple he decided to make it his own, maybe by hubris, maybe by passion, or a strong mix of those two feelings. Kitamura first stated that he didn’t want anything realistic in this movie, that he wanted a set which could be only found into the fifth instalment of the Alien franchise (which didn’t exist at the time, since Alien: Covenant got released in 2017). Soon, his set decorator turned this concept into an all-metal confinement box, just because. Kitamur aliked the idea, he liked it so much, he worked with the same decorator on Aragami and Azumi.

Truth is, Kitamura recognized himself in the character of Tenshu, the condemned man who is at the centre of Takahashi’s creation. The characters, this was what drew Kitamura in the first place, but he wanted to do something else. Thinking the plot was too simple he decided to make it his own, maybe by hubris, maybe by passion, or a strong mix of those two feelings. Kitamura first stated that he didn’t want anything realistic in this movie, that he wanted a set which could be only found into the fifth instalment of the Alien franchise (which didn’t exist at the time, since Alien: Covenant got released in 2017). Soon, his set decorator turned this concept into an all-metal confinement box, just because. Kitamura liked the idea, he liked it so much, he worked with the same decorator on Aragami and Azumi.

Hideo Sakaki is seated on an electric chair, prison guards dressed as military stand on either side of him.
Execution scene in Kitamura’s Alive

The set had one main problem, though, looking at every interview, every document there is about the movie creation, everyone complains about the heat. Ryô, who plays the part of Yurika the Witch, states that since she was barefoot, she burnt herself up the first few days, because of the metal floor under which some lights were set up, this led the team to glue invisible soles to her feet⁷. Still, the making of Alive wasn’t an easy, even if the budget was way larger than the one on Versus. First, Kazuki Kitamura, who was cast to plays Tokutake, the person working for the minister, could not be there because he fell sick, one day before the shooting began, Kitamura was able to secure Bengal to play the part⁸. A last minute change which may well have helped the movie for the comic relief it brought.

Still, Hideo Sakaki, who played the part of Tenshu, stayed with the crew every time, even when he was not on-screen. This show of bravery seemed to have been really appreciated by his cast mates⁹. Truth is, listening to them, everyone seems to agree that if Kitamura was able to get this movie done it was mostly because he used his Versus film crew. Koyuki, who would go on to play alongside Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai movie, calls them the Kitamura Gang, and that the filmmaker should be grateful to be surrounded by them. It’s hard to disagree when you know that the SWAT fight, which Kitamura asked his stuntmen to train for, for weeks, was not even shot by him. According to the commentary, this took a 24-hour day of shooting, directed by none other than Yudai Yamaguchi, who was the first assistant director and would later go on to direct Battlefield Baseball with Tak Sakaguchi (Versus) as a lead. On this especially hard day, Kitamura admit he was exhausted and was not able to come to the set, leading Yamaguchi to take on the director hat. If you wonder why this sequence is so weirdly shot, it’s because the 1st AD glued a camera to a helmet he was wearing, jumping and running around amongst the fight scene, in between actors and stuntmen.

Ryuhei was there to shoot the fighting scene between Tenshu (Sakaki) and Zeros (Sakaguchi), a sequence which doesn’t exist in the original manga and was shot on a green. Both actors were attached to line, more lines than the stunt coordinator had ever seen, to his own admission. Still, on the first day, Kitamura decided they were not violent enough towards one another, so he cut the day short, ending it at 3PM; yelling something along the lines of: FIGHT TO THE DEATH FOR CHRISTSAKE! It’s mesmerizing, listening to the three of them (Kitamura, Sakaki and Sakaguchi) remembering this when Tak Sakaguchi goes as far as stating that even though they ended the day short, he still came back home covered in bruises. Thing is, Zeros is Kitamura’s invention, an alien-hybrid whom Tenshu has to fight to get out and Kitamura did really think this to be one of the most important scenes, asking his stunt coordinator to send both actors flying four or five meters above ground. When asked about such an odd addition to his piece, Tsutomu Takahashi answered that he didn’t really mind when he knew Tak Sakaguchi would play the part¹⁰.

A cloaked figure (Zeros) is turning his back to us in what appears to be a cell.
The first apparition of Zeros (Tak Sakaguchi).

But the scene Kitamura wanted to shoot, the scene for which he even made the adaptation in the first place, was the final one. This was shot on his birthday and the director used this as an argument to pressure Sakaki. Give me the best birthday gift there ever was, both Sakaki and Kitamura recalled were the words of the director. To accentuate the effect of shot, Kitamura decided he would use a surreal blue sky, upon which grey clouds roll on at incredible speed. The filmmaker first wanted to shoot the blue sky of Hawai but when he knew this wasn’t an option he opted instead for a surreal sky, which would accompany his surreal flick.

Doing this scene better than it was in the manga, that was the goal Kitamura set upon himself when he decided to shoot Alive. Listening to him, on the commentary, in interviews, the director appears proud of the work he had done, of the changes he made. The alien story bit wasn’t in the original, just as Bengal’s character, or his bodyguard for that matter, weren’t as important. The odd decorum, the sexying-things-up associated to filming Koyuki’s legs, all of this are Kitamura’s addition. In fact, there are entire scenes which are labelled Kitamura all over, like when the bodyguard opens fire on the unsuspecting crew in the command room. Truth is, Kitamura wanted so much to put his own imprint onto the Alive material that he succeeded for better or worse.

Reading the manga, you’d assume Tenshu was a normal guy, he seemed loved by everyone in the jail, even the security personnel, and his death sentence finally coming up appears as a drama for everyone. This image slowly shatters as we discover that he stopped caring for his girlfriend after she got raped, as if the insult to his manhood was more important than the scars she was left with. This isn’t really how Kitamura’s Alive plays out. In it, Tenshu appears to be a silent guy, some dark broody superhero who is waiting for the day he will die, Kitamura goes as far as dressing him just like Neo in the first Matrix movie.

This is not the only reference you will find in Kitamura’s movie. Nods to other films are a plenty, on the commentary track, Kitamura cites : The Client with Susan Sarandon, or having taken a shot from The Mexican trailer which had just came out, but you could go as far as saying : Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, Adrian Lynne’s Jacob’s Ladder are the most obvious. Still much like in Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky, identifying which movies Kitamura references could almost be played as a game. In a way, this is what turned a serious thriller of a manga into an action-packed sci-fi movie; what makes both pieces so different from one another.

In a way, Kitamura turned Takahashi’s Alive into Kitamura’s Alive and that’s what we ask from an adaptation. At least, this makes discovering both art pieces interesting.

Trailer for Ryuhei Kitamura’s Alive

Sources:

[1] Tsutomu Takahashi’s biography (in French)

[2] Alive, Tsutsomu Takahashi, Generation Comics, France, author biography

[3] Documentary on Tsutomu Takahasi

[4] 1995 Subway Attack in the Encyclopedia Britannica

[5] Versus DVD, We prod, Interview of Ryuhei Kitamura

[6] Versus DVD, We prod, Making of

[7] Versus DVD, We prod, Interview of Ryo

[8] Versus DVD, We prod, Interview of Koyuki

[9] Versus DVD, We prod, Interview of Hideo Sakaki

[10] Versus DVD, We prod, Audio commentary

I started on Medium by writing ONE tip from a Dilettante Writer, but if you’re more into cinema, you may want to read about the epic odyssey behind Christian Volckman’s first movie or a piece talking (amongst others) of the only kung-fu flick Singapore ever produced : Ring of Fury.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store