Blister by Taikan Suga (Review)

‘Blister’ is a hidden gem, one that both affirms the value of our hobbies while also reminding us that there is a real world out there.

When I was a kid, I could literally spend hours walking up and down the toy aisles of K-Mart, Target, etc., to the point that my parents almost had to drag me away. I loved going through all of the action figures from various toy lines — G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, etc. — looking at each of them, reading the assorted info on the package (my favorite being the filecards that came with G.I. Joe characters), imagining them on various adventures and whatnot. And to be perfectly honest, I haven’t quite grown out of that phase.

Why, just this past Christmas, I practically geeked out at a recent family gathering when I saw one of my relatives carrying the new Snake Eyes action figure. Not surprisingly, I found myself really digging Blister in a big way, though the movie did hit a little too close to home at times.

Yuji (Hideaki Ito, Princess Blade, Onmyoji) is obsessed with action figures, specifically those of American comic book heroes. He spends hours scouring comic book shops, convenience stores, and vending machines, looking for that next valuable treasure in a blister pack (the packaging from which the movie derives its name). Yuji’s Holy Grail is the rarest action figure of all: Hellbanker. Based on a character from an obscure comic book about the financier of hell (just watch the movie), only a handful are said to exist, though noone knows anything about them.

Along with his boss, Terada, who is obsessed with classic sci-fi like Star Wars, Back To The Future, and all of the various Star Trek incarnations, and Hashimoto, who has an unhealthy love for giant robots, Yuji diligently looks for Hellbanker — much to the chagrin of Mami, his long-suffering girlfriend. Throw in a couple subplots about a nail-painting artiste who develops a crush on Hashimoto, a Korean sculptor who is seeking an heir for his amazing talents, a bizarre apocalyptic sci-fi showdown several hundred years in the future, and a bizarre government project involving the Earth’s rotation, and you’ve got the makings of an incredibly quirky, adrenalized comic romp through several unique subcultures.

At least, that what it looks like on paper. Blister, while certainly quirky and not without its share of adrenaline-pumping moments, is quite something else entirely. The concept of otaku — those being super-obsessive fans — is nothing new in animé and manga circles, and has received a fairly bad rap in recent years, for good reason. Blister, looks at it from the inside, getting into the mind of these obsessed individuals, at what drives them, while at the same time, pointing out that the cost of their collecting can’t be merely measured by the amount of money they spend.

I don’t think it’s too farfetched to call Blister a movie that’s less about action figures, and more about addiction, pure and simple. Much like drug addicts, Yuji and his friends run themselves ragged for their obsession, sacrificing wealth and relationships in pursuit of their goal. For Yuji, it’s his relationship with Mami, which is constantly falling on the rocks whenever Yuji brings home another sack full of blisters.

However, writer Shinichi Inozume does a fine job of making these addicts (for lack of a better term) characters that are actually likable and sympathetic. Sure, the typical stereotypes are there — sci-fi geek, animé nut, etc. — but the movie doesn’t make them into stereotypes. Yuji isn’t a bad guy. Slightly careless and selfish, yes, but not beyond redemption, and certainly not beyond the audience’s sympathies.

The movie makes it clear that what these people are pursuing isn’t the action figures themselves, but rather, some sense of purpose, something that gives their lives meaning. As one character points out, figures are idealized visions of humanity, with all of the traits, features, and characteristics that we wish we had for ourselves. However, it isn’t until the movie’s end that Yuji realizes that his pursuit for something meaningful, something that gives his life purpose has been skewed and misdirected. Unfortunately, it takes something tragic to make him see that.

I can see how some people might find Blister rather disappointing. It constantly toes the line between being a dark, serious melodrama (for example, when Yuji has to go ​“cold turkey” from his collecting habit), and something more outrageous and off-the-wall (such as the whole ​“Earth rotation” subplot). And there are certainly times where, by trying to be both things, it ends up being neither.

But to the credit of director Taikan Suga, the movie does a fairly decent job of maintaining its balance, and even wrapping things up on a fairly satisfying note. And while the look and feel of the film seems fairly MTV-derived, with saturated colors galore and plenty of whizbang editing, much of the camerawork is handheld, stripping the film of any gloss and sheen it could’ve had otherwise while also making it a more intimate film. I kept expecting the film to break out any minute into something McG-ish, but thankfully, those moments are few and far between, drawing us much more firmly into the characters’ lives.

I would love to do a double-header with this and Spaced. Surface-wise, both titles have obvious similarities, as both revolve around characters from similar sci-fi and comic-related subcultures. Also, both titles revel in their pop culture savviness (Blister contains countless references to comic books, animé, and movies), but not with the express purpose of merely being hip or clever. Like Spaced, Blister treats pop culture as something more than just merely entertainment. Rather, they raise the (obvious) point that pop culture is just that, a ​“culture” that defines how we interact with the world, eachother, and ourselves.

Like Spaced, Blister reveals the good and bad sides of this, though it is certainly the darker and more serious of the two. There is the possibility of community with other like-minded individuals, but also the equally likely possibility of isolation and loneliness, as obsessions take over and grow to unreal heights. Watching Blister, I see similarities to the lives of many friends I’ve had whose lives have revolved around movies, animé, etc. And for that matter, I see in it reflections of my own media obsessions.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many non-otaku will get into this movie. I wonder how many of them will simply dismiss it as a movie about a bunch of weirdos who simply need to grow up and get a life. However, for those of us on the inside, Blister is a hidden gem, one that both affirms the value of our hobbies while also reminding us that there is a real world out there.