Color, 2010, 119m
Directed by Yôhei Fukuda
Starring Hirofumi Araki, Ayaka Kikuchi, Haruka Nakagawa, Masashi Mikami, Shota Chiyo
Danger After Dark (DVD) (US R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0
Another day, another Japanese film about young people trapped in an enclosed setting and forced to do horrible things to each other. The number of films cashing in on the success of the Saw franchise seemingly knows no end, and here's another one from Japanese production company/distributor Jolly Roger, who also churned out Demeking the Sea Monster. Made in 2010 but making its English-friendly debut two years later is X Game, which fits in with the company's previous bizarro variations like Death Tube and the truly batty Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale.
The opening is actually a fairly potent curtain raiser as a man with a big, bloody "X" branded into his face wakes up in a sunny classroom filled with students only to see a sinister red box (marked "X Box," though probably not related to Microsoft in any way) . We soon realize that all the "students" seated in desks around him are faceless mannequins, and after reaching in the box to pull out something determining his fate, he winds up splattered into a bloody mess outside on the pavement. Apparently this is the latest in a string of mysterious, hushed-up disappearances and freakish deaths in the area, though the students are more concerned about their love lives and hanging around squabbling with each other. Among these are Hideaki, who gets pelted with a sinister piece of paper marked "Death Penalty" but tosses it aside to chase after his irate girlfriend, Rikako, who thinks he's playing around on the side. As it turns out that dead guy was a former childhood classmate of Hideaki and pals, who were quite the bullies in their formative years. A creepy computer torture video and other uncanny events soon tip them all off that something's amiss, and soon the couple and two of their old friends find themselves trapped in that same classroom, a recreation of the one from their childhood. Two creepy psychos in green surgical smocks with bags over their heads enter the room and, armed with taser rods, force the quartet to participate in an increasingly sadistic string of "games" determined by the box. A "school lunch" (consisting of rice and maggots), forced milk chugging, a "pencil guillotine" capable of stabbing through fingers, a spiked desk chair, and other twisted punishments await them, often accompanied by perky Hooked on Classics music.
The goriest anti-bullying screed you'll ever see, X-Game often subverts expectations as it wavers between absurd black comedy and truly vicious violence, sometimes within the same minutes. It's also shockingly overlong at just under two hours (you could easily drop 20 minutes or so without doing much damage), but that at least gives it time for an odd story structure that doesn't get to the main classroom hijinks until almost 40 minutes in and then spends the final act in another setting entirely, setting up a pretty brutal, ironic finale. None of the actors have to do much more than look terrified and scream a lot, but that's more than enough in this case. The film's real reason for existence is the gore itself, which flows plentifully after a bit of a dry period between the squishy opening and the execution of the full revenge plot. Limbs fly off, nearly everyone gets branded, and digits get speared with wild abandon; as a party disc, this should certainly do the trick if you're okay with walking in and out of the room during a few of the slow stretches in the first third. Incidentally, X Game was also one of the original titles for Death Tube, which led to rampant confusion between the two films. (IMDb still hasn't really straightened them out). Director Yôhei Fukuda (Chanbara Beauty) does a skillful job of juggling horror tropes here as well, including an interesting real-life use of that modern day staple, the long-haired creepy girl (which means something very, very different here).
Danger After Dark's DVD features a pretty nice anamorphic transfer for this film, surprisingly presented in scope. The two-channel stereo audio sounds fine throughout, with moderate separation effects and a really loud song over the end credits, while the optional English subtitles appear to be accurate. Extras include the trailer for this film along with bonus ones for Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale, Epitaph, and Suicide Club.
Reviewed on December 13, 2012.