The COVID-19 pandemic is still highly topical, and likely will be for a long time to come, so it’s not surprising we’re seeing more and more films either set during it or directly, and indirectly, influenced by it. The 12 Day Tale Of The Monster That Died In 8 was created in quarantine, with much of the action taking place on laptop screens as characters communicate with each other over Zoom or film themselves for YouTube. Inspired by Shin Godzilla star Shinji Higuchi’s viral video, Kaiju Defeats COVID, the film takes discussions about public safety to their most unnatural conclusions, positing a world where aliens and ghosts have come to earth and battled each other, and it’s simply considered a part of life. The sweet message at its core, meanwhile, is surprisingly poignant.
Lead Sato (Takumi Saitoh, playing a version of himself), a jobbing actor, is at a loose end after COVID shut down all film and TV productions in Japan. After chatting to mentor and kaiju expert Higuchi, (playing himself here) Sato decides to procure a “capsule kaiju” to keep him entertained while stuck at home. The out-of-work performer then documents his progress in a series of increasingly strange videos, frequently taking breaks to chat to his buddies, one of whom is raising an alien that can’t be seen on the feed because, as the creature itself explains to her, aliens don’t show up on video (duh). Those waiting to see the cute little critters come to life will be disappointed, since the monsters in question look more like little clumps of White Tack than anything else. Apparently, they’re not that impressive anyway, since one once lost a fight to a lighthouse, according to a deadpan Higuchi.
The 12 Day Tale is played totally straight, with writer-director Shunji Iwai having enough confidence in his bizarre premise, and its surprisingly resonant real-world ramifications, to allow events to unfold without too much urgency. The film is a mere 82 minutes but feels neither rushed nor bloated. Higuchi is a master storyteller, conjuring up a lovely, compelling tale of humans versus monsters without much of anything ever actually being shown onscreen. Sato’s to-camera pieces are equally compelling in their simplicity, while well-judged deadpan humor punctuates the atmosphere. Aside from the apartment-set stuff, there’s some gorgeous drone footage of a mostly deserted Tokyo, captured in stunning monochrome to give the film a pretty, dreamlike quality that fits perfectly with the fantastical elements.
Iwai and his talented cast find plenty of clever ways around their low budget limitations and single setting environments, but they certainly didn’t scrimp on the cinematography, which makes it easy to forget we’re watching a story unfold on a variety of screens. COVID is a kind of monster too, so the greater implications are keenly felt, particularly a pro-mask message that’s deftly interwoven and strangely moving. Interpretative dances, sprinkled throughout and beautifully captured, make less of an impact only because the meaning behind them isn’t quite clear. Considering how simple Iwai keeps things elsewhere, even while dealing with literal monsters and aliens, these interludes feel unnecessary and sap The 12 Day Tale of some of its offbeat energy.
Considering how well-observed the Zoom interludes – characters speak over each other in an entirely realistic manner – and YouTube sequences – a woman in a bathtub, fully clothed, shows off her own pocket monster – are the film can be forgiven for veering into arty-farty territory at times. The simple fact is we care deeply about this small cast of likable characters and desperately want them to remain safe and happy. After all, as with anything COVID-related, it’s about coming together and fighting for the greater good that really matters in the end. Aside from doing so much with very little, Iwai’s greatest achievement with The 12 Day Tale is making a compelling argument for doing exactly that.
WICKED RATING: 7/10