Directed by: Yohei Fukuda
Written by: Mari Asato and Yoichi Minamikawa
Featuring: Hirofumi Araki, Ayaka Kikuchi, Haruka Nakagawa, Masashi Mikami
A group of 20-something adults including Hideaki (played by Hirofumi Araki) are kidnapped and placed inside a locked school room. Hands bound and in various states of coherency, they each quickly discover that they were all students at the same grade school years ago. It turns out that the four individuals also participated in, or were a witness to, the bullying of a female classmate named Mariko. Two hooded guards, armed with taser-like clubs, enter the room and force the group to watch a holographic video featuring their former grade school teacher. Under great duress, he explains to them that they have been gathered to participate in a version of a vicious grade school pastime called X Game.
The rules are simple: 13 different punishments are written on separate pieces of paper and tossed inside a red box. The chosen victim must reach inside and randomly pick one of the punishments, which is then carried out by a team of bullies. To refresh their memories, the teacher writes each one of the 13 punishments down on the blackboard. The acts sound harmless enough and include such things as “sitting on tacks,” “drinking gallons of milk” and “burning hair.” A televised spinning wheel chooses one of the four players at random to begin. The other three participants must carry out the punishment or risk getting punished themselves.
The severity of this version of the game is felt immediately after Hideaki is chosen first and pulls out the “sitting on tacks” card. A chair with spikes several inches long is produced and he’s forced by the others to sit and impale his backside. The game continues as the grown classmates are forced to endure torture from both each other and the hooded guards. If a punishment is not enacted thoroughly by the end of a set time, one of the participants is tied to a chair and branded with an x. The violence escalates until one of the players pulls out the dreaded 13 card, which is “the death penalty.” Will the other three captives be able to carry out a murder in order to gain their freedom? Will a viewer be able to make it through until the long, drawn out ending?
X Game, the latest in a series of Saw-inspired thrillers from Japan, is a bit more ambitious than most. It does feature an intriguing (and topical) premise revolving around bullying its long-term consequences. Having a shadow syndicate invested in retribution for those who have been bullied in the past is a clever idea. It’s also based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada, which does give the narrative a bit more weight as opposed to the aggressive exploitation of Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale (another Danger After Dark release). But however interesting the premise is, X Game has no desire to be anything more than a violent morality play. When all is said and done, it’s still about a group of people being systematically tortured for past sins.
Fans of this particular formula might be disappointed by Fukuda’s timid approach to the material. While there are a few violent set pieces and gallons of blood, there is no tangible threat posed or even mild suspense generated. No matter how horrible the victims are mangled they manage to overcome and, in some instances, completely heal from their wounds. Lead Hideaki would have surely died from his experience in the spiked chair, yet moments later he is standing without any sign of trauma or puncturing on his clothing. The mild indifference conveyed by the young cast also makes it difficult to care much about the outcome. The script, credited to Mari Asato and Yoichi Minamikawa, is wildly uneven both tonally and structurally. The convoluted ending goes on far too long, padding the running time to almost two hours. If the gist of your film is tying people to chairs and mangling their bodies with sharp instruments, you can pretty much cover it all in 80 minutes tops.
There’s a scene at the beginning of director/cinematographer Yohei Fukuda’s film where a man commits suicide by jumping off a building. It’s an inspired moment that is shot and edited with an intensity sadly absent from the rest of the film. There are also brief moments of visual panache that hint Fukuda may be a much better cinematographer than director. While X Game is certainly more ambitious than the average torture porn endeavor, it’s too mild, too long and too convoluted for even its target audience.