In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
DVD review - Genocidal organ ***
Directed by Shuko Murase. Starring (Voices): Yuichi Nakamura, Takahiro Sakurai, Sanae Kobayashi. Japan, Anime/SF/Thriller, 114 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by National Amusements on the 12th July, 2017.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Of Linguistic Relativity, that "...language determines thought, and·that linguistic categories limit and determine [or merely influence] cognitive categories...." (thanks to Wikipedia), is not generally the stuff of animation. The idea of detecting the signs of future wars and genocides through the analysis of syntax and grammar seems like a philosophical concept that would be too abstruse to easily grasp even in a lecture hall, and as the main intellectual thrust behind a subtitled anime it's even trickier to absorb.
GENOCIDAL ORGAN is a dark (both visually and thematically) tale set against an apparently endless cycle of civil wars across the globe, and the escalating violence in which nuclear weapons are far from the endgame. It's set slightly in the future (mostly 2020 and 2022) where US agent Clavis Shepherd is assigned to track down the mysterious "John Paul", his fellow American who appears to be the key player in a series of bloody conflicts across the world. Their best lead is through his former girlfriend Lucie, now working as a language teacher in Prague: Clavis makes contact with her by posing as a businessman who needs to learn Czech....
While Clavis' approach is pure James Bond, the espionage story is much more from the world of Jason Bourne: the shadowy world of political corruption and the over-zealous military disregard to human life. Set in a dystopian Hell of mass surveillance and body trackers that double as contactless debit cards (the film takes place only a few years from now, though the original novel by Project Itoh – real name Satoshi Ito - came out in 2007), GENOCIDAL ORGAN's world is by definition very glum, very grim and very uncomfortable. Sure it has the helicarriers of the Marvel Universe, it has lovingly squishy slow-motion headshot violence, it has the quest for the ultimate supersoldier unswayed by emotion, it has moments that look like FPS videogames - in other words, the SF fun stuff.
What it doesn't have is much in the way of humour to lighten the mood even slightly, leaving the film pretty heavy going in places, especially as nearly two hours. It's also very wordy, and very talky, with long and verbose conversations about Hell, terrorism, language, genocide and war that perhaps aren't best served by hand-drawn animation: it's too static and drains the life from the film. Perhaps it's perverse, or even heresy, but I suspect I'd have liked it more is it had been live action. That's not to knock animation, but in this instance it seems to detract from the real-world grit that they've clearly tried to invest the film with (nuclear explosions and all). It doesn't really feel like the format brings anything special to it.
All in all it's a bit of a mixture: it's way·too long and could have lost maybe twenty minutes of self-justifying speechifying and jawbreaking dialogue which I confess I didn't fully grasp). On the other hand the film does whip around the globe: from Sarajevo and Prague to India and Uganda, and the action movie plot around it is frankly much more exciting and interesting, as a showcase for cool future technology that dehumanises civilians into easily trackable, easily managed and easily scared dots on a computer screen, and awesome weaponry that dehumanises the military to become even more efficient at killing, all of which is terrifying (and probably inevitable). Intriguing, and enjoyable in spots, but don't expect a popcorn spectacular.