The fate of the world hangs in the balance as an apprentice monk is tasked with retrieving a powerful, enchanted coffin stolen from a temple by an opportunistic thief with possibly nefarious intentions.
Let me preface this review by saying that I’ve not read the manga on which this action-fantasy film was based. Fangirls and fanboys, please hold your hatemail! With that disclaimer, let’s get on with the show.
This film eschews the slow burn approach. Director Yuji Shimomura throws us into the action even before the onset of the opening credits. A man approaches an isolated temple and attacks the monks to a throbbing metal soundtrack provided by Dir en Grey. Shots of an ongoing battle outside are interspersed with imagery from within the temple that introduce us to a mysterious figure surrounded by chains. It is implied that he possesses some sort of second sight – and he seems very perturbed by what is about to happen.
As the credits end, we are taken to what seems like a settlement of sorts. The denizens of this strange outpost, dressed in dark robes and pale makeup, discuss the arrival of someone they call the Coffin Man, whose mythology includes the slaughter of an entire country and possession of a coffin that allegedly grants wishes. Oh, and he is apparently more than ten times the height of an average man, so there is that.
Meanwhile, a monk from the temple finds a broken length of chain on the ground outside. He runs inside to discover that the mysterious figure from the opening scenes (now identified as the Archbishop) has been unchained and appears to have been stabbed while trying to protect a magical coffin, which has been stolen. Seems that there is some truth to the rumours, after all.
The Archbishop exposits that the coffin’s seal must not be broken, lest it spell the end of the entire world. He implores the monk to find the thief and restore the coffin to the temple.
With that, we’re off to the races!
Death Trance follows the quest of the young monk, Ryuen (Takamasa Suga), as he pursues the coffin thief, Grave (Tak Sakaguchi), who is travelling with a young girl who may have some fairly disturbing powers of her own. As it turns out, Ryuen isn’t the only one searching for this magical artifact – his journey is full of encounters with both friends and foes, each with their own motivations for seeking out the coffin. As the coffin changes hands, new and unexpected alliances are formed and broken. As someone unfamiliar with the source material, it did keep me guessing. The further we’re drawn into this quest, the more nightmarish it becomes. Midway through the film, horror elements do begin to creep into the action-fantasy narrative, which was a welcome surprise.
Death Trance does lack in character development and its plot manages to be simultaneously both shallow and convoluted, but that doesn’t really hurt the overall viewing experience. It’s a case of style over substance, but these types of films do have their place (as evidenced by the box office returns of summer blockbusters.) The pacing is steady and quite brisk. While the film is punctuated by high-impact, martial arts action scenes (which contain weapons ranging from swords to staffs to bazookas), there are many small moments of quiet humour to be found throughout. The film has a manga feel in the cinematography and the use of sound effects, particularly during battles and other scenes of conflict and tension. The special effects are understated and well-done. The camerawork is often restless, gliding smoothly between subjects and over landscapes and often capturing striking imagery on its path. It even has a delightful stop-motion animation sequence and a psychedelic fantasy fight scene!
Death Trance is far more fun and stylish than a film of its budget has any right to be. The makeup, costuming, and set design seem either deliberately post-modern or the result of a lack of budget paired with a very creative determination to make do with what is available. (Since this is based on a fantasy manga, I assume that it’s the former.) Its bleak, post-apocalyptic vibe is tempered by a more traditional edge, and there are some steampunk-ish aesthetics throw in for good measure. At times, the film alternately brought to my mind shades of Neverwhere, Turbo Kid, and The Neverending Story, oddly enough, but none of these references really describe what Shimomura is doing with this film. The world-building and aesthetic are satisfyingly non-derivative – out-of-time, out-of-place, and impossible to pin down. If you’re looking for a fantasy film that looks great, offers fun action sequences, and doesn’t make you think too hard, then check it out.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10 chain-riddled coffins.