Review: Demeking (2009 Japan, 2010 U.S.)

Yes, “Demeking” is technically a giant monster movie; it’s got kids in short pants and a Japanese seaside and a stuntman in a rubber suit laying waste to scale models of apartment buildings. The whole thing takes place in the early 1970s, as if pining for the tail end of the genre’s golden era. But “Demeking” is not a giant monster movie, not really, not in its heart.

Demeking

Indeed, save for some mystery surrounding its name, the titular beast doesn’t even factor into the story until around two-thirds of the way through, which will likely disappoint genre fans looking for a campy smash-’em-up. In place of such thrills, we get a delicate, rather sweet, admittedly off-kilter tale of two youths who each, in their own way, crave fantasy as an escape from their own dull lives.

Adapted from Takashi Imashiro’s manga (which I have not read and which seems to have never been imported Stateside), “Demeking” features Kohei Kiyasu as Kame, a high schooler who spends his time with a gang of grade school boys in what they call an “exploration club.” Kame is a geek and an outcast among those his own age – he dreads school, usually abandoning it altogether – but with the boys, he’s loved and respected. Kame is eager to keep a tight grasp on his fading childhood, dreaming of leading his club on some grand adventure. Anyone who has ever been a boy knows: all boys crave grand adventure.

An attempt at such an experience leads them to what they assume to be a derelict boat. Perhaps it’s a ghost ship! Alas, it’s merely the home of Hachiya (Takeshi Nadagi), who is in a way both Kame’s opposite and equal: he’s eager to take his own path into adulthood, yet reluctant to assume responsibility as he’s hounded by all around him who want to set his path for him. His father grumbles over his lack of vision; his boss at the rundown theme park wants him to join full-time.

Hachiya tells Kame and the boys he’s expecting to fight Demeking soon, as if that’s his only goal in life. What is Demeking? He sends the boys on a scavenger hunt to find out. But is the evidence of a space monster from the future legit, or is it merely part of a game Hachiya has created?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Demeking becomes a simple metaphor for distraction. It’s what Hachiya can claim rules his future while he avoids having a real one; it’s what Kame can contemplate as he thirsts for thrills that can carry him away from bullies and loneliness. Director Kôtarô Terauchi smothers the film in a sense of desolation – empty streets, an emptier theme park (Kame and the boys seem to be its only customers most days), smokestacks belching into grey skies, a tofu shop (which Kame expects to inherit) that’s slowly dying, a decaying port town where the only entertainment is laughing at the neighborhood drunk as he’s passed out in the middle of the road. It’s no wonder these young men have no faith in their future.

(Note: spoilers throughout the remainder of this review.)

Kame’s spirit is lifted when he embarks on the adventure Hachiya has constructed as a sort of farewell present to the boys, and in this middle section, the mood of the picture soars. We see Kame at his best as a big brother figure, selfless and assured instead of bossy and immature. As an audience, we’re swept up with it, and when they reach the end and discover proof of the monster in the form of an oversized footprint, our own imaginations take flight.

Demeking eventually arrives in the form of an atomic slug from outer space – but only in a dream sequence, fueled by the fever Kame earned following his rain-soaked journey. This is as close to proper kaiju as the film allows itself to get. Instead we question our own expectations. Are death and destruction really preferable alternatives to the cold misery of real life?

A lengthy epilogue, set two years later, leaves nothing answered and serves only to amplify the characters’ isolation and inability to confront reality. With the tofu store no longer a viable source of security, Kame has decided to write a novel about Demeking (which, he tells his friends in a bit of meta winking, isn’t really about the monster but about the people who want to believe in it); he’s happiest when telling his friends he’ll win major awards for his work, while the actual act of writing seems too much a chore. Does he finish the novel? Does he attempt to move on and grow up? The film ends without giving us an answer.

Nor does it tell us much about Hachiya, whom we glimpse just once, all alone. Is he, as he once claimed, still preparing for his fight with the space monster? If so, is what we see real, or what Kame imagines him to be doing? Or is he simply going about his day, and we’re projecting our own story-related questions onto what we see?

Frankly, any answer will do. What truly counts here is that he’s still alone, still adrift in that no man’s land of young adulthood, still waiting for his life to begin. And that’s more devastating than any damage a space monster could deliver.

Note on the U.S. release: Cinema Epoch is releasing “Demeking” to home video with DVD cover art that retitles the picture “Demeking: The Sea Monster” (because, um, it’s a seaside town?) and presents the film as an all-out monster flick instead of the quiet character piece it actually is.

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