Review by Geoff Arbuckle
The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 found its way to Fantasia International Film Festival 2021. This peculiar film was written and directly by Shunji Iwai, a 25 year veteran of film. But what makes this movie a combination of experimental, artistic, and very much of its time is due to how it is filmed and acted.
You see, this was made in 2020, pretty much at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that shut down several countries and restricted many from being able to go about normal day-to-day lives. Some countries had it worse than others and some had different industries affected in different ways. In Japan, just as they were here in North America, film and TV productions were shut down. That didn’t stop Shunji, though. He took advantage of technology that other companies and industries went to in order to keep people sheltering in place, but still able to operate.
The 12 Day Tale is a little bit selfie and a little bit Zoom call. It’s about a man, Takumi, who decides to purchase what’s called a capsule monster (a concept that has roots in some kaiju media in Japan) and raise a monster to be a hero in the fight against COVID-19. Takumi is not a monster shepherd. He’s an actor, but there’s no jobs to go to right now. During his journey with the capsule monster, the teeny tiny, unassuming egg splits into three, hatches three creatures, and then it ultimately merges back into a single creature again.
We go through several days of Takumi keeping people he’s streaming out to updated on the status of his tiny kaiju. In between his streaming updates, we see him seek advice from a monster expert, reconnect with a friend who he hasn’t seen in several years and cannot travel to currently to see again, and then a lady friend who, herself, bought an alien to raise. He even watches a streamer who broadcasts from her dry tub and is also raising a kaiju, but a larger one.
There is very little more to this movie than the regular updates on the capsule monster’s progression as a “living thing” and the conversations with three friends. While there is a charm to this that I’ll touch on momentarily, therein lies the biggest issue with this movie. I am going to ultimately be marginally in favor of this movie, but it isn’t one I can truly recommend to a wide audience. This is a slow movie. At 88 minutes it feels twice as long. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a lot of listening in on other people’s phone calls and zoom meetings. It might have been better to just stick to Takumi and his daily updates and trim this down to a 30 minute short. At that point, it would have lost a little bit of the sloggishness that the movie has but also heighten the heart that is on display here.
I did say I am marginally in favor of this movie despite it being three times as long as it needs to be, and I want to make sure I am giving this movie its due. First of all, I just mentioned that this movie has a lot of heart. You can connect to these people through shared experience of 2020. Everyone feels sad and lonely because these are metropolitan people who are cut off from the world. The movie begins with a voice ringing through the city to tell people to stay home and do their part to fight COVID-19. The movie occasionally returns to the streets with drone shots of a mostly quiet and empty city. It gives an overall feeling of, almost, existential dread of the rampaging virus that is in desperate need of heroes to step up to fight it.
In addition to what’s very much on the surface, there is a metatextual foundation here too. I don’t exactly understand every single thing that the capsule monster takes as a form, but some are quite obvious. It’s clear that the idea of raising a kaiju to fight coronavirus is symbolic in Japanese media and culture. These things are a force of nature that can protect humans and such. I believe there is something to the alien Non, Takumi’s lady friend, is raising not being visible to Takumi. It could represent, in many ways, the emotional baggage that Non is carrying with her during the lockdown. It could be the virus itself. When Takumi connects with “kaiju expert” Shinji Higuchi, who came up with the story this was based on, there’s a whimsy to him talking about days gone by with frequent alien visits and attacks and the kaiju that roamed almost freely. All of this is handled in a whimsical way that ends on a fairly poignant conclusion.
There’s also an obvious goodness to Takumi that he wants to do whatever he can help people. He wants to raise a champion for the people. He wants to help an unemployed friend have things in his apartment. He’s doing everything he can to connect with people so they aren’t so alone during trying times. This is hardly stated, but it’s there. These scenes with Takumi and his friends seems unscripted, or at least it’s natural enough to feel that way.
Finally, as someone who films his own stuff using just a webcam and current reatil items that can produce production quality results (not to mention our podcast’s reliance on Zoom ourselves), I do believe this is a very good example of how you can still make a movie if none of your actors are ever on set together. COVID-19 gave people an opportunity to think outside the box for filmmaking and I’m surprised there aren’t more than the half dozen or so movies to be created and released using a quarantined method on display here.
So, yes, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 is a bit of a mixed bag. I feel that this story could be told in 1/3 of the time the movie is. I feel like sticking strictly with Takumi would have accomplished everything it needed in order to be a short. Yet, I say that and most of the positives I’ve pointed out all deal with how Takumi interacts with his friends and the more interesting things that happen during those scenes. It’s a bizarre movie that likely will not find a wide audience because it is quite out there. How the movie ends, while cute, will likely turn people off even further if they aren’t totally invested.
The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 is currently streaming on demand at Fantasia Festival 2021.