When Kimihiko Nakamura’s “Smoking Aliens” world premiered at the Yubari International Film Festival in 2018, this low-budget science-fiction horror panic film became, without winning any prizes, one of the highlights of the festival. Now, with its European premiere at this year’s JFFH, we have a chance to check it out for ourselves.

“Smoking Aliens” is screening at Japan Filmfest Hamburg:

When Kaori Hanazawa (Riri Koda), a widow and passionate smoker, tries to smoke in the kitchen, a colleague quickly intervenes and forbids her to smoke inside. After being pushed outside, Hanazawa, while smoking, encounters another person on her path, who underlines that this is a non-smoking area. Slightly annoyed, she decides to smoke outside the premises of the company. Hanazawa suddenly perceives falling stars in the sky, not knowing these small meteors are home of dangerous kind of parasitic extra-terrestrials. 

As a narrative, “Smoking Aliens” provides an exaggerated and, by its very exaggeration, funny view on contemporary social tendencies. It frames a conflict between an environment that aims to force the obsession of health – e.g. ‘fat reduction month’, forced use of stairs, required use of pedometers – and those who persist in their unhealthy enjoyment of smoking – be it for stress reduction or not.

This conflict between the ‘healthy’ and the ‘unhealthy’ is turned upside down from the moment the non-smoking and health-focused members of the company, (e.g. the company’s president, …), start to fall victim to the parasite and some smoking survivors come to realize that smoking is their only weapon against these parasitic aliens. As such, Smoking Aliens constitutes nothing other than a comical reversal of the fact that death resides in the act of smoking, by turning it into the sole way of surviving the zombification of the parasites – the unhealthy act of smoking being a more lethal poison for aliens than for humans.

While this reversal is enjoyable and fun, there are some aspects concerning the narrative and its flow that could hinder the enjoyment one can extract from this. Despite the good general narrative flow, there is nevertheless some continuity issues and one temporal issue to be noted. The temporal issue occurs after Hanazawa sees her daughter, Kiriko (Akane Aida), approaching her company from the window. While, in filmic time, it takes a decent amount of time for Kiriko to enter her mother’s workplace, the time the narrative implies it would take  – the time the spectator is led to believe it would take by the very shot of Hanazawa seeing her daughter – is significantly shorter. Another aspect that might be a wee bit awkward for some spectators, even though it’s a minor thing, is the way in which some characters talk to themselves.        

The cinematography of “Smoking Zombies” consists, even though semi-fluid shots or following shots are applied as well, mainly of a concatenation of fixed shots. Action-scenes, as dictated by the more tensive music, are shot with less fixity and with more frantic movement. Despite the low budget of the narrative, Nakamura has succeeded in framing some recognizable action-moves in a truly pleasant and even slightly inventive way.

The practical effects by Yoshinari Dohi are topnotch – wonderful and, for the greater part, truly convincing. The ‘birth’ of the parasite from the meteor, the parasite’s encroachment in its victim’s mouth as well as the parasite’s way of making more victims is framed in an enthralling but slightly disconcerting way. While our interpretation may go a bit too far, it is still important to note that the parasitical birth, the birth from the hole, is not without reference to imagery of a feminine nature. Understood in this way, “Smoking Aliens” affirms the tendency in horror to associate the feminine with something akin to horror.

The practical effects are accompanied by a great and effective sound-design – a sound-design highlighting the ever-present comical undertone in the horror that befalls our characters. In other words, while the imagery is characterized by horror, the sound design re-frames that horror within the comical that underpins the narrative set-up. The actors bring the parasitical zombification in an engaging way to life – especially the performances of the company’s president and the deathly blond woman are noteworthy. One performance – the actor who plays the sole male cleaner – is a bit more comical than the others. While we are not sure if this was truly intended or not, this more obvious subtle comical injection makes the narrative even more enjoyable.

From the dramatic opening music, more lighthearted music, to the more tension-driven music, “Smoking Aliensprovides its narrative beats with fitting musical accompaniment. The most effective blend of music and imagery is the narrative’s re-envisioning of the image of the cool smoking hero, which is turned by the fitting musical accompaniment into one of the most enjoyable moments of the entire film.

Smoking Aliens is a narrative that – and this might be surprising for some – finds a great balance between silliness, coolness, and horror. While the premise is pure silliness, the amazing practical effects of horror, courtesy of Yoshinari Dohi, and the framing of the action scenes – instrumental for the narrative’s flavor of coolness – are successful in adding the right beats to the narrative’s flow. Even so, “Smoking Aliens” does suffer from some problems – problems infecting its flow. But, when all is said and done, these flaws are not detrimental to the fun to be found in this crazy narrative.

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