The difference between Inuyashiki and typical American films about ordinary people turned super is evident right from its first scenes. Instead of opening with a stylized prologue or spectacular action sequence, the movie introduces us to the banal life of its title character, a put-upon salaryman on the later side of middle age. The sympathy it brings to the poor old guy right up front is key to the success of Inuyashiki (a Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival) even as it indulges in heavy-duty and sometimes surprisingly nasty action.
Ichiro Inuyashiki (Noritake Kinashi) gets no respect at home or at his office: His wife Marie (Mari Hamada) and teenage kids Takeshi (Nayuta Fukuzaki) and Mari (Ayaka Miyoshi) barely tolerate him when they’re not simply ignoring him, and he’s repeatedly dressed down and humiliated by his boss. Late one night, while walking in a park with a stray dog he’s just befriended, he witnesses what appears to be an alien craft landing—and so does high-schooler Hiro Shishigami (Takeru Satoh), who’s loitering on a nearby bench. Both are knocked unconscious by a blast of white light, and when Inuyashiki wakes up the next morning, he finds he’s been physically altered into a biomechanical being, with a glowing energy ball for a brain and elaborate weapons bursting from his arms.
Kinashi and director Shinsuke Sato (who’s been quite busy of late, with I Am a Hero and Bleach also screening at Fantasia) play Inuyashiki’s discovery of his new cyborg status for funny and endearing physical comedy, and we like him even more once he starts using his new powers for good. Remotely picking up the pleas of people in trouble, he is able to heal the sick and the dying, and finds that playing Good Samaritan gives him a new purpose and happiness. Meanwhile, the similarly augmented Shishigami embraces the dark-side possibilities of his powers, which include “shooting” people with a point of his index finger. Sato and scripter Hiroshi Hashimoto, adapting the manga by Hiroya Oku, tell us nothing about Shishigami before his transformation, then effectively reveal the details of his own frustrations as a child of divorce—making us understand why he callously exterminates a random happy family, even as we’re horrified by the act.
Inuyashiki winds up stumbling upon the crime scene, the first explicit hint that he and Shishigami are headed for a hyper-powered confrontation. There’s a lot more to the story, though, as Inuyashiki, despite his newfound gift for bringing happiness to the lives of others, still struggles to connect with his own flesh and blood, while Shishigami’s attempts to turn his situation to positive advantage are thwarted at every turn, pushing him deeper into the abyss of sociopathic fury. The villain, in fact, becomes the dominant character for a long stretch of Inuyashiki, which gives him a more complex story and psyche than is typical in this genre. Shishigami genuinely cares for his mom (Yuki Saito), who got the bad end of the split with his dad, and returns the affections of a shy classmate (Fumi Nikaido) who has a crush on him. Any happiness that he experiences is short-lived, though, thanks to the intervention of the authorities and the pernicious attention of Internet dwellers. A montage of Shishigami avenging himself upon social-media trolls is the most gruesomely funny way the filmmakers toy with our sympathies for their murderous antagonist.
It’s also one of many sequences in Inuyashiki whose explicit mayhem pushes way past the boundaries of Hollywood fantasy-actioners. In particular, the images resulting when Shishigami lashes out at society in general, which uncomfortably echo recent mass shootings, would never fly in an American mainstream feature. Yet Inuyashiki’s violence doesn’t feel gratuitous in its own context, since its creators have done such a compelling job of tracking Shishigami’s descent into psychosis, and establishing Inuyashiki as a compelling positive force. Kinashi invests this burgeoning hero with real heart and believable reactions to the weirdness erupting around him and from within him, effectively counterpointed by Satoh’s chilling embrace of evil. Separately and together, they engender such strong human interest that when Inuyashiki gets to its lengthy, apocalyptic finale, we remain connected to these two people even as the special effects go into overdrive.