Comedy is the most difficult film to cross international waters. This isn't because different folks require different laughs; rather, it's because effective comedy - what makes the jokes work - requires an intrinsic understanding of that people's culture and/or societal norms. Comedy - in its primal form - pokes fun at those standards, so in order to understand the anticipated punchline one must understand the culture at some basic level. In other words, let's assume Japanese people hate clowns but Americans don't; all of the jokes pointed at a society's fear are likely to pass over the heads of an American audience unless they're constructed broadly enough that any person - an everyman - can make perfect sense of it. Usually, that isn't the case. Usually, humor is closely aligned with one's particular civilization, leaving many bits and pieces of a film like DEAD BALL sadly lost in translation.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Poor little Jubeh. Jubeh Yakyu (played by Tak Sakaguchi) was just a boy with boyhood dreams of playing professional baseball, the great American pastime. However, turning your father's brain to jelly with a fastball he couldn't control put poor little Jubeh on a much different course. Swearing never to pitch again, he abandons caring for his younger brother Musashi and enters a life of crime, one which eventually leads him to Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory. There, Headmistress Ishihara gives him an ultimatum: either play ball again, or she'll murder his cellmate in cold blood.
As is often the case with splatter movies, don't go into this one expecting it to make much sense, much less perfect sense. It doesn't.
Actually, DEAD BALL rolls ever onward, and the more it rolls the more wheels come off its wagon. There's a story here as demonstrated by the synopsis above, but the narrative wanders around so much one might suspect they were shooting and somebody lost the script. The first hour - while the picture maintains a loopy, goofy, mainstream comic quality - is quite entertaining in much the same way a Mel Brooks film or a Zucker Brothers comedy can be. However, the second hour succumbs to splatterific nonsense, wherein the audience learns (out of nowhere) that our heroes (and I use that word lightly) find themselves trapped in the midst of a kill-or-be-killed baseball event, much of which defies any measure of logic. To make matters worse, the final fifteen minutes the film actually tries to throw audiences yet another curve ball (get it?) when somehow someway it becomes a bit of an all-out farce. Suddenly, our heroes are apparently gifted with time travel skills and the ability to rise from the dead - if only for a few scenes - in order to underscore just how far off the rails this train has run.
To his credit, adaptor/director Yudai Yamaguchi revels in his own excesses, never dialing back the craziness; but, to his detriment, he's delivered a wildly uneven picture. Some of the material - such as Ishihara's affiliation with the Nazi Party and Jubeh's curious ability to pluck a cigarette out of the air any time he feels like it - are broad enough that they work fine all on their own ... but the rest? It teeters on `absurdism' consistently, possibly even when it isn't supposed to. Is it legitimate splatter? The first hour would imply not as it's mostly conventional laughs, albeit in a Three Stooges kinda/sorta way. The second half is when true splatter begins, but, at that point, methinks splatter fans may've turned it off by now due to the lack of bloodspray in the first half. For the record, the traditional comedy was the way to go with this mess; it appeared as if everyone was having a grand old time ... and then a splatter film broke out.
Kudos to all involved, though, for embracing the zaniness inherent in telling this story. I'm just disappointed it didn't add up to more sense.
DEAD BALL (aka DEADBALL) is produced by Nikkatsu (as Sushi Typhoon) and Pipeline. DVD distribution is being handled through Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language film with English subtitles available (no English dubbing). As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds very solid, though be prepared at some laughable special effects (I'm certain that's by design). There's a handful of special features, including a spinoff short, a making-of compilation, cast interviews, and trailers for additional titles available from Sushi Typhoon.
MODESTLY RECOMMENDED, mostly for fans of the unique art form. You like splatter? You may like half of DEAD BALL ... the second half, that is. While the first half has a handful of splatter moments, it's more of a traditional comedy that works quite well on its own. The second half will be more to your liking. There are all kinds of bloody deaths in the most bizarre baseball throwdown you'll ever experience. I've tried to caution all: don't expect this to make sense. This is much more technique than it is message.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with an advance DVD copy of DEAD BALL for the expressed purposes of completing this review.