Dance Into Buddhahood – Hachioji Zombies

Well, hopefully the title of “Hachioji Zombies” managed to garner your attention. It’s certainly not something I anticipated watching but, that funny thing of Yamashita Kenjiro from Sandaime J Soul Brothers being the main character was pretty persuasive. I know, I said I would try and pick things not based on actors but… you can see how well that’s going for me.

So let’s talk premise. “Hachioji Zombies” is actually a drama, and soon to be movie adaptation of a stage play of the same name. The premise is that Takahashi Habuki (Yamashita Kenjiro) has given up becoming a professional dancer, thus to rediscover himself he has vowed to become a buddhist monk at a temple in Hachioji. However, on the night of a full moon he witnesses a dramatic battle between the chief priest and the zombies.

Habuki is told to forget what he saw and move along. He doesn’t. Being curious, Habuki returns to the graveyard to see the zombies… still relatively non-decomposed and fairly happy. The zombies tell Habuki that they can achieve Buddhahood if they dance on a full moon night. However, the chief priest won’t let them learn. They beg Habuki and he agrees… so will they achieve Buddhahood??

Well, I can tell you right now that you don’t find out in the series. Like a lot of LDH’s recent projects, this drama is more for background and character building. For someone like myself, who didn’t see the stage play, it was very helpful. There’s a small cast of eight zombies, Habuki, and the chief priest who makes infrequent visits as well as a few interlopers.

From the first episode forward, we can already see the dynamic between not only Habuki and the zombies, but from one zombie to another. At only eight episodes long, I anticipated that each episode would feature one zombie, elaborate on their background and perhaps how/why they became a zombie. However, I was presently surprised that each episode was more collaborative then that. Episodes had more of a ‘theme’ over a specific character, and Habuki and the zombies would bounce off each other in their interactions.

In one of the latter episodes the ‘theme’ is regrets. Three zombies have items that at one point or another, they took from a friend and never returned in their human life. Since the full moon is forever coming soon, they want to leave this plain without regrets and ask Habuki to help. He agrees, and it’s as awkward as you think, full of that repetitive gag style that Japan loves.

Smiley Kenjiro
Lots of dance scenes like this.

While each episode tends to open, and end with a small musical number to keep the format neat and on topic, the zombies will gain buddhahood from dancing supposedly after all. That’s one of the shining points of the series. Yamashita Kenjiro has actual experiance not only choreographing, but as a dance instructor before being in Sandaime. Thus, the instruction and dance scenes play off with incredibly natural energy. Often times the leader of the zombies, Jin (Kubota Yuki) and Habuki bouncing puns and jokes off of one another.

Admittedly, after dance the next big element is the comedy. And again, do not get me wrong Yamashita Kenjiro is a naturally funny guy. Watching him in interviews is hilarious. While, I found a lot of the humor funny, I could see this humor not really hitting off with the Western audience. As I mentioned earlier, the humor is very Japanese style with verbal puns, somewhat contextual, a bit of fast-talking plus a few bit-gags, that come off fairly repetitive. I watched on a weekly basis, which kept me from getting too overwhelmed with it but in a binge-watch I could see it being difficult for people to get into.

I was also impressed that the majority of the core cast, i.e. Habuki and the zombies mostly transitioned from the stage play to the drama. I believe the characters Santa and Yonta, might have had the actors change, but I can’t be sure. Overall they transitioned from stage to screen really well. I believe this is due to the fact many of the actors have extensive backgrounds in both, so their acting read well on camera. No one drifted into the awkward over-emoting because of the source material, which was a relief.

(Stage play makeup is left, and drama makeup is on the right.)

My only major nit-pick was the make-up choices from stage play to drama. The stage play had much better choices for zombies, while the drama seemed repetitive. It’s never explained when the various cuts occurred, pre or post fight with the head priest, but a lot of the zombies have similar cuts on their faces which at first glance makes it a bit difficult to put names with faces. As their personalities flesh out, it gets easier but the first two episodes this particularly rough.

This was a bit out of my usual picks, minus it having Yamashita Kenjiro, but it was enjoyable. Not particularly ground-breaking or game changing, but it’s a fun aside to the main story. I’m looking forward to seeing the film in June, so now I’ll have to pass more time watching other dramas and movies until then!

 

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