SPEC: Close~ Zen no Hen (2013)

As Part 1 of the finale of the SPEC series, SPEC: Close ~ Zen no Hen had the dual task of wrapping up as many loose ends remaining as possible and essentially setting up the scene of the climactic finale – both in tone and in drama. For the most part, it did so fairly well and, to its credit, managed to also stand on its own as a movie. That being said, there were more than a couple of moments of clunky writing that saw it fall short of its full potential.

As a side note, I've watched the final movie - Kou no Hen without English subtitles. My Japanese comprehension doesn't stretch as far as allowing me to understand the entire movie (though I understood the general gist) so I'm waiting for the English subtitles to be released before I do a full review of Kou. I've tried, as much as possible, to isolate my review purely to what happens in Zen. 

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS, long and image-heavy.

Thankfully, the movie wastes no time fluffing around as it opens by addressing the issue of the Ninomae clones from the last movie. The clones are revealed to be a project of an elusive ‘Professor J’ as a bunch of SWAT-team-equivalents (speaking in badly accented Chinese) invade a secret compound filled with the discarded carcasses of ‘failed’ experiments. The movie also wastes no time fully embracing the horror genre and upping it to eleven, freaking the hell out of its audience as one soldier becomes possessed by ‘Professor J’ and kills everyone else, complete with jump scares.

A lot of exposition is dumped by the shadowy Secret Council of International Evil, trying to blame everyone else for Professor J's actions (now featuring a female Korean agent dressed impractically in a black lace evening gown for Maximum Evil Effect!). It amused me they were all speaking in their own languages as though everyone else could understand them.

Himiko, the pre-descendent of mankind, urges the council to stop Simple Plan and, when he is insulted by the others, murders everyone except the Korean lady who is sent to report his actions to another shadowy Secret Council.

The Toma and Sebumi side of the story begins with the news that Aoike and Jun have escaped the police hospital, which rendered Aoike absent for the entire movie.

But for all the Toma and Sebumi adventures, Zen no Hen was very much Nonomura's film. He plays a pivotal role of finding the Simple Plan virus (designed to only kill SPEC holders) and refuses to give the virus over, in fear that one country will monopolize the virus and therefore, the antidote. That country is, unsurprisingly, China (ah, geopolitics).

To the movie's credit, Miyano (who was Aoike's partner in Ten and who does an unconvincing Chinese man impersonation) did not fluff around with a villainous monologue before just getting the job done: shooting Nonomura and taking what he believes to be the virus. Almost shockingly realistic. Bravo.

Which turns out to be...Viagra. Of course. Never let it be said the Japanese don't acknowledge its elderly.

Yet another new character, Toda from NASA, enters the fray, seemingly with the sole purpose of conveniently explaining why Toma's entire family was killed and who did it (and has stayed away until now, for some reason). In short, Toma's father refused to help Professor J and, in just a tad of disproportionate retribution, Professor J killed the entire family. How Professor J did it is not explained nor is it explained why Toma was spared and it's a lazy way of resolving that plot point. The interrogation is cut short as Toma's grandmother appears, possessed, and pours a bowl of live grenades on the ground.

This introduces one of the central problems in the film - Toma's SPEC beginning to fail. She's quickly overcome by the same demons that almost overwhelmed her in the climax of Ten as she tries to summon Youta, which leads to an explosion and the death of her grandmother, while also putting Toda out of commission with severe burns.

More internal conflict is created when Sebumi and Toma hear of Nonomura's death and read in his will that he specifically doesn't want Toma involved in the case (it's assumed because she's a SPEC holder). It's never explained why Toma's SPEC is the only one that seems to degrade with more use. The spirits appear to be a purely destructive force, urging Toma to murder humanity and to come over to 'their side'.

It's one of the most vulnerable moments we've seen in Toma as she visibly exhausts herself, holding the demons at bay, and admits to herself that she's scared. It's extremely sad how hard she tries to hide it, as Sebumi joins her on the rooftop. He's not fooled by her bravado and urges her, in his gruff way, to not take Nonomura's words to heart. Toma snaps back angrily that he can't know how it feels.

I'm not entirely convinced of Toma's internal conflict, which was knowing she shouldn't use her SPEC but feeling powerless as a police officer who should be protecting her friends. She pretty much can't use her SPEC at this point - it's not just a matter of choosing whether or not to use it. It would have been a clearer conflict if she could still summon the dead but they became more demonic each time she did, so the temptation to use her SPEC was actually a real one.

Regardless, what followed was an anguished scene, loaded with palpable tension that ended with an anticlimax as Sebumi choked back what he was about to say.

"Sebumi-san. If I ever lose my way, please shoot me."

"Of course."

That is the essence of Sebumi and Toma's relationship. Mutual respect. Absolute trust. Blink-and-you-miss-it tenderness.

I can't help but wonder how Nonomura found the location of a dangerous virus (inside a tuna!) and not only replace it with a fake but also just being able to mail the real virus to to Toma and Sebumi, complete with instruction sheet (?!). Nice shout out to motorcycle express delivery guys from Sho (on a random note, Japan really loves their 'world-ending virus' trope).

Of course, Toma just happens to have an old, hithero unmentioned classmate, who she claims can develop an antidote. I had to snort in appreciation when Fuken immediately subverts the 'invent an instant, magic antidote' trope by saying it will require 10 years and $500 - $1000 million yen to develop properly.

It was a nice twist of the 'I'm not really dead!' trope to have Nonomura come back as a corpse possessed by 'Professor J'. But when he's outed as a fake...

Oh no.

Oh noo...

The climax is the final sendoff for Nonomura as a character. I thought the foreshadowing with the ~SPIRIT OF THE POLICE OFFICER~ was just a tad obvious but it was an extremely emotional climax for Sebumi and the other officers to be the ones to finally 'kill' him. It gave Nonomura a chance to say his farewells and let him reiterate the damemoto concept that he foreshadowed, embodying the idea of the policeman's duty to keep trying, even when the situation is futile - a very Japanese-oriented idea.

That being said, they already had a 'Nonomura sacrificing himself to defeat the enemy' arc in the actual SPEC series (and he inexplicably made a full recovery despite dozens of knife slashes) so it sort of dampened the dramatic effect.

During Nonomura's funeral, Toma expresses her disappointment that Nonomura had not told them anything. It was a surprisingly pessimistic statement but summed up the biggest problem I had with Nonomura's arc in this movie: his pivotal role as the central 'player' in the Simple Plan plot seemed to just come out of the blue. How did he know about it? How did he know what to do or where to look? It's impossible to expect the movie would give us a full backstory as a side character, but as a character who was 95% comic relief during the series, I can't help but wish they cut some of the May-December romance with Miyabi in favour of a little more background.

They also played this romance straight, which was quite unexpected to me. They were framed as silly comic relief throughout the series. I'm not quite sure what to think of it. The sudden emotional depth seemed really arbitrary.

The Kikkawa concept made me laugh out loud - truly the best joke of the movie. I adore his yakuza underlings (and I won't even try to come up with a realistic explanation for how he's alive. Just roll with it). He conveniently got over the freezing quirk as the plot approached a climax.

The water gun SPEC user was literally the randomest character, whose main purpose was to be a visual joke (and a red herring for Professor J) and should have just been Miyano to keep things neater. Also, if she's a SPEC user, why does she want Simple Plan to succeed? Was she possessed by Professor J (given she was doing the weird glitch-water-shimmer too) and why was she not all demon-like, like Nonomura was?

As much as I love SPEC movies and their unique character designs, they have a serious problem of introducing way too many characters that the viewer doesn't have time to care about, while neglecting to explore the potential of other characters (where was Mirei??? Where was Tsuda Sukehiro? All the SPEC holders from Sho??).

The gyoza guy got robbed by his Spanish employee (who was a SPEC holder) and became a gyoza machine. Why??

The overarching 'war' that's set up in Zen no Hen is between those who believe in hidden human potential and those who would kill that potential. SPEC holders (and allies like Sebumi, Nonomura etc. who still see SPEC holders as 'humans') against the creators of Simple Plan.

It was a fascinating line of thought but it's not explained clearly at all. You have the Secret Council of International Evil who are squabbling between themselves about Simple Plan and wanting war. You have Himiko who wants them to stop Simple Plan but has apparently waited 300,000 years to start a war (while arguing they should not start war)? And then you have Fatima's 3rd Prophecy, which appears to be some sort of apocalypse that would render the war inconsequential. I have no idea how they intersect.

Jun and Sekai are presented as near-omniscient original 'gods' with ambiguous allegiances, who question whether SPEC is evolution or degeneration of humanity, and question what 'Gaia' intended by spreading godlike powers among the 'ants' of humanity (creating 'ants with wings', which was a nice metaphor).

They're all fascinating ideas with very interesting references to a myriad of theories - Laplace's Demon, String Theory, Gaia Theory, the Tower of Babel - but just not made clear enough for the average viewer and namedropped, more than explained.

The few bits of beautiful cinematography (in its own right) were heavy with negative space.

What particularly grated, stylistically, were the copious, poorly executed flashbacks throughout the entire movie. The last montage of Nonomura took an entire five minutes of run time, which took it from 'touching montage' to 'overstaying its welcome by compiling all the scenes from Episode One to five minutes ago in this movie'. It was a lazy way of showing Nonomura's significance and broke the flow of the movie.

As the penultimate movie of the whole series, SPEC ~Zen no Hen does a good job setting up unresolved conflicts for the finale (even if it does it a little heavy-handedly) while also wrapping up a self-contained internal story in Nonomura's final arc. For me, it's a solid B.

Whether or not it pays off in the finale...will have to wait until the English subtitles for Kou come out...