Isola (2000)
By: M. Walsh on August 30, 2005  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Stomp Visual (Australia). Region 2 & 4 PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). Japanese DD 2.0, Japanese DTS 5.1. English Subtitles. 93 minutes
The Movie
Director: Toshiyuki Mizutani
Starring:Yoshino Kimura, Yû Kurosawa, Ken Ishiguro
Screenplay: Hiroshi Hatajima, Mugita Kinoshita
Music:Takeo Miratsu
Tagline:'Chihiro suffers from multiple personalities... one of them is deadly.'
Tuesday, January 17th, 1995: It is 5:46 a.m. The Great Hanshin earthquake, with a local magnitude of 7.2, occurs 20km below Awaji-shima, an island in the Japan Inland Sea. The port city of Kobe is severely affected, due to its close proximity to Awaji-shima, and 5100 people die during the earthquake's 20 second duration. This is where Toshiyuki Mizutani's Isola begins, minutes after the quake, as people lie scattered amongst the rubble, torn from their families and homes, dying. We see the remains of a collapsed highway, buildings reduced to bricks and flames. This real-life catastrophe provides the framework for what is quite a simple story of vengeful spirits, troubled teenagers, subservient female protagonists and dubious scientific experiments (the hallmarks of almost all Japanese "slow-bore" horror films).

A young woman with troubling psychic abilities, Yukari Kamo (Yoshino Kimura), works in a rescue shelter in Kobe, attending to the needs of the homeless during the day and sleeping in the shelter's storeroom at night. The woman who runs the shelter, Hiroko Nomura (Satomi Tezuka), befriends Yukari, letting her move into her house and sleep on the floor. Hiroko is a high-school counselor who is treating Chihiro Moritani (Yu Kurosawa, Akira Kurosawa's granddaughter), a teenager who suffers from multiple personality disorder. One of her personalities may be responsible for a few grisly deaths and it's up to our female protagonist, Yukari, to crack the case.

Wait. Save your questions until later.

This "evil" personality, the titular ISOLA, may be much more than a figment of a deranged girl's psychosis. She may, in fact, be a vengeful spirit! When a doctor (Ken Ishiguro) reveals to Yukari the details behind a crazy experiment he was involved in on the morning of the quake, something to do with out-of-body experiences and isolation tanks, Yukari decides that the only course of action is one of slow, deliberate investigations punctuated with moments of talking and looking at things.

I have absolutely no idea what the director was trying to achieve with Isola. The film itself is an exploration of social acceptance and exclusion told from the perspective of the outcasts (Yukari, Chihiro, Dr. Manabe, the earthquake survivors), but that kind of thing doesn't make for a very interesting horror film, or rather it would if the sub-text (transgression and atonement) or the text (vengeful spirit does very little of anything) were in the least bit interesting.

Like too many films in the J-Horror cannon (Dark Water, Pulse) events in Isola occur because they have to and not because they should. The earthquake is used to bring the central characters together and lock them in place. Fair enough, but why use an earthquake? I'm sure there are plenty of other visual metaphors to suggest divergence and decay. Instead of allowing the story to progress naturally, the screenwriters (and there were four of them) seemed to have agreed on three or four main "events" and then mashed the script to accommodate them. A screenplay can never be completely organic, but it's difficult to enjoy a film when it feels so rigidly constructed.

Technically, the majority of Isola is competent without being exceptional. The film's sparse moments of horror are neither horrific nor scary and are in fact handled with little directorial skill. Mizutani seems much more at ease during the dramatic scenes, as do his actors. If there is a fatal flaw here, it is that so much of the film makes absolutely no sense. Character motivations (including those of the title character) are completely baffling. There a plot holes and discrepancies everywhere. And with every new reveal that the film offers up, more questions arise.

There is nothing resolutely awful about the film; it's just lazily plotted and dull. Chihiro has 13 personalities, yet we only see two or three. The other personalities are therefore superfluous. So why include them at all? This is a question that arises far too often in the film, from the inclusion of the earthquake to the protagonist's psychic affliction. Take away Isola's many redundancies and the plot simply falls apart. And when a film's narrative hangs from such a fragile support, it is all too easy to see the cracks underneath.
Isola is presented in a decent 1:78:1 anamorphic transfer. Day and night scenes are well contrasted and colours are nice and bold (especially evident in Yukari's red coat). Compression artefacts and edge enhancement are kept to a minimum, although they do make a few appearances from time to time. The subtitles are well placed, easy to read and, most of all, removable.

It is possible that Isola was shot in 1:85:1 and then cropped for the local release. The framing didn't look tight to me, yet I have seen the DVD listed with the wider aspect ratio so it is a possibility.
My rich uncle is still very much alive. Owing to that fact, I was unable to preview the DTS track on this release. However, the 2.0 mix was clear, well designed and free of anomalies. On principle alone, I cannot recommend the 2.0 over the 5.1, but for those without the luxury of a DTS setup (or for those whose PC speakers are in need of immediate replacement) the stereo option will have to do. No Dolby Digital 5.1 here I'm afraid…
Extra Features
A small selection of trailers (Shikoku, Inugami, Isola, and Shadow of the Wraith) and a short interview with the film's two female stars are all the special features have to offer.
The Verdict
The earthquake that destroyed so much of Kobe was particularly devastating because it had a shallow focus. Isola seems to have inherited the same destructive trait. The use of the earthquake hints at a larger picture. It almost seems to acknowledge that movies, even horror movies, have humanistic designs that far outweigh their genre or worth. But it's all superficial. It's all just interpretation. In reality, Isola's themes of acceptance and regret are neither perceptive nor interesting, and its attempts at horror are awkward.

It's as if the earthquake's rubble and smoke has confined the film, preventing its plot and characters from ever becoming more than the machinations that fling them from one scene to the next. Isola has plenty of big ideas, but the paper that they're written on is very, very small indeed.
Movie Score
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