Lumberjack the Monster (2023) Review

Lumberjack the Monster (2023)
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Hiroyoshi Koiwai
Starring: Kazuya Kamenashi, Nanao, Riho Yoshioka

Best known for the excessive, visceral violence of Audition and Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific modern Japanese directors. Sadism seems to be an intentionally integral aspect of Miike’s canon, in a way that would be comparable to provocateurs like Gaspar Noé or Sion Sono. Miike has stated, however, that he is personally “not a big fan of violent movies” and that his own work “ends up becoming violent” through their exploration of troubled individuals. He does not begin with the intent of making a violent movie. With over one hundred titles under his belt, Miike’s films span across a wide range of genres and aesthetics – from traditional horror to campy, comedic romance. Miike’s constant pace of output has caused some of his work to go largely unnoticed on an international level. Who would have known he directed a body horror series (‘Connect’) for Disney+? Lumberjack the Monster, released on Netflix, is a prime example of Miike’s recent films slipping under the radar.

The opening of Lumberjack the Monster is set in the classic Miike style of depravity: we see a crazed woman surrounded by the bodies of dead children. Only one boy remains alive. He reads a children’s book about a deranged killer, titled “Lumberjack the Monster.” Within the first ten minutes of the film, there are two explosively bloody deaths that will certainly be satisfying to fans of Miike’s hyper-stylized gore. Following the chaotic opening, the pace of the film slows and falls into the pattern of a traditional crime-drama/thriller.

Lumberjack the Monster is essentially a cat and mouse chase between a manufactured psychopath and a masked serial killer, dressed as the character from the children’s book. After Akira Ninomiya (Kazuya Kamenashi) – a lawyer and functioning sociopath – is attacked by the masked stranger, he devotes himself to uncovering the identity of the assailant. The common thread between the victims of the serial killer is the presence of a neurochip, which Akira also has. This neurochip indicates that Akira was a victim of a cult, depicted in the opening scene, that experimented on programming children into psychopaths. The new knowledge that Akira’s deviant behavior is technically extrinsic sends him into a spiral of moral confusion. As Akira’s mission to gather data about his past and identify his attacker unfolds, the police and profilers are trying to catch the same killer.

Lumberjack ultimately feels constrained by the need to explain the logic of the neurochips that the film’s narrative rotates around, and does so by providing contextual flashbacks for information that could have revealed itself naturally. The repetition of a scene from Akira’s childhood, for example, makes the film’s biggest moment, a “plot twist” reveal of the killer’s connection to Akira, both painfully unsurprising and terribly disappointing.

Despite the over-explanation of some details, the film’s three central plotlines very much lack theoretical and emotional substance. Kazuya Kamenashi’s cold, controlled portrayal of Akira is the driving force behind his character. Kamenashi does a good job balancing the unsettling disposition of a psychopath with subtle moments of empathy. Beyond this skilful performance, Akira’s character arc – or lack thereof – is predictable at best and uninteresting at worst. The complexity of Akira’s psychopathy being enforced by an external factor, the neurochip, provides an interesting premise for commentary on free will and personal responsibility. The choice to focus more heavily on the search for Akira’s attacker prevents the film from portraying a more thorough investigation of his psyche and intentions. For example, the convoluted relationship Akira has with his fiancée, and her father’s death, does little to add depth to his motives. The attempt at a “romance” subplot between the immoral character and an innocent woman seems unnecessary and quite cliched.

The basic narrative and underdeveloped characters hold Lumberjack the Monster from reaching its full potential. The concept of following a morally corrupt individual on what they deem to be a righteous pursuit has been explored at length in almost every film genre. The masked killer in Lumberjack believes he is doing society a favor by getting rid of the neurochipped psychopaths. His distorted ethical code is partially influenced by a desire to atone for his own past crimes, which are mentioned only in passing. Lumberjack does not achieve the profundity and narrative commitment for a proper analysis of the lengths a person will go to for “justice” and how they implicate themselves in violence. Strong, character-based films like Oldboy or Django provide a more potent consideration of similar themes.

When following the police force narrative, which is secondary to that of Akira’s, Lumberjack stylistically emulates a David Fincher film – down to the green-tinged color grading. The defiance and determination of Toshiro (Arai Nanao), one of the profilers on the case, is comparable to Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith. Toshiro’s willingness to do whatever it takes gives her the potential to be a dynamic character, but this promise goes largely unexplored. As the search for the killer comes to a peak and Toshiro grows more suspicious of Akira, a couple of scenes between the two characters build a satisfying level of tension, but these momentary successes make the otherwise neglectful writing even more disappointing.

With a runtime of two hours, the film’s rigid, formulaic structure definitely causes the pacing to drag. Lumberjack is similar to Ichi the Killer, also around two hours long, in that both films pit two equally violent individuals against each other. Ichi the Killer’s success, or infamy, was dependent on its ability to fully immerse the viewer in its grotesque world through unconventional, jarring audiovisual techniques. Whether you think Ichi the Killer is a work of creative genius or simply needless exploitation, anyone who watches it will surely have a strong reaction to its provocative content. This is precisely what Lumberjack is missing.

Lumberjack the Monster does not necessarily need provocation to the level of Miike’s previous films in order to be interesting, but it does need something more to engage the audience. The flaws of a weak script could be forgiven by a return to the exaggerated violence of the opening. This level of energy, however, does not present itself again. The final battle between Akira and the masked killer, which one would expect to be subsequently gory, turns into a rather lengthy theoretical debate about psychopathy and the purpose of life. Trying to impose some kind of moral reflection through the characters comes too late in the film, providing only half-baked ideas.

Despite the mediocre execution of Lumberjack the Monster, the film is not an indicator that Takashi Miike has “lost his touch,” per se. Just a few months ago, Miike released a technically innovative and visually stunning short film, Midnight, in collaboration with Apple, shot on an iPhone 15 Pro. The shortcomings of Lumberjack the Monster are a product of being restrained by a cliched story and strict adherence to genre conventions.

Score: 8/24

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Written by Lauren Frison

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