Japan’s Film Madness

Five Cinematic Victories in Japan’s On-Going War Against Sanity

People often exploit Japan’s eccentricity for the purpose of comedy, and maybe we never will understand why they go nuts over arcade games that let you fist child molesters, but for the most part I’m sure they’re just as baffled as to why we took a walking bag of surgical waste, spray-tanned it and let it become the ambassador for a generation.

The sad truth is that, for the most part, Japan is every bit as boring as the rest of us, the only reason we think they’re so insane is because we only ever here about the maddest parts of their culture. After all, would you be more interested in reading about how they built a full-size Gundam robot or that a lot of their offices still use fax machines?

Much like Charlie Sheen perched over a hooker’s arse with a rolled up banknote, however, there is a line. The following films ran screaming through no-man’s land and tackled that line into a foxhole — along with cultural differences, logic and reason– pulling every pin on their grenade belt as they went.

(Disclaimer: There are many, many spoilers contained within this list, but given the lengths I had to go to to get some of these films, I doubt it will ever be an issue.)

The Story of Ricky (1991)

The Story of Ricky is the film for anyone who thought that the Great Escape was too contrived; that the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s touching portrayal of a death row inmate was too soft; and for anyone who didn’t understand why Andy Dufraine would waste all that time breaking down a wall with a toffee hammer when he could just punch it to death.

I don’t know what it is about the future that puts the fear of God into the Japanese, but they are determined that when the end of the world does come, there won’t be much left apart from gym equipment, leather and rape.

The Story of Ricky is a tender piece of cinema set in a world where the prison system has been turned over to private corporations and, with all metaphorical subtlety of a punch to the skull, this has led to an unprecedented amount of murder and opium-growth. The titular Ricky (or Riki-Oh if you prefer) is incarcerated in one of these prisons after being wrongly imprisoned for murder. I don’t mean he didn’t do any murdering, by the way: he definitely, definitely did. It’s just that they were wrong to imprison him for it. Dead wrong.

If the above image didn’t instantly tell you everything you need to know about the Story of Ricky then you’ve probably never seen a film before. The film wears its ultraviolence proudly on its sleeve –or at least it would if anyone ever wore a shirt– but don’t let this put you off: the special effects budget is on par with a pre-school nativity production, transforming a genuinely uncomfortable scene involving an eyeball into a blooper reel for a gameshow where people are scared by a mannequin designed to look like Takeshi Kitano precisely three seconds before he dies of consumption.

If that’s not enough for you then I thoroughly recommend reading the manga the film is based on, which has the honest-to-God full title ‘Violence Hero Riki-Oh’, where it is revealed that –SPOILERS– Riki-Oh was born after his mother was raped and impregnated in prison by a Nazi from space.

There is literally no joke I could make that would be more ridiculous than the sentence I just wrote.

House (1977)

My favourite thing about House is going onto the IMDB messageboards and watching people try to debate the deeper meaning behind turning a school teacher into a pile of bananas or having a teenage girl laugh about being eaten alive by a piano. I wouldn’t presume for a minute upon the director’s intentions, but I think that many of the films more psychedelic moments have less to do with hidden subtext and more to do with House being a 70’s B-movie about schoolgirls in a haunted house that had the budget of a 70’s B-movie about schoolgirls in a haunted house.

Anyway, the plot of the film, as best I can tell, is that a girl –disappointed by her father’s choice to court a woman who refuses to enter a room unless there’s a fog machine on like a Kate Bush video– seeks refuge at her aunt’s house in the middle of nowhere. For some reason, she takes all her friends along, who conveniently run the gamut of Japanese schoolgirl tropes: the athletic one, the samurai one who trains with a wooden sword, the dim but well-meaning one, the one whose head comes off and bites the other one on the arse…wait, what?

I don’t know if it’s just my modern sensibilities (personally I can no longer be scared by a film unless at least half the footage is shot on a shaky handheld camcorder) but House is a pretty rubbish horror film. It is, however, brilliant for anyone who wants the experience of an acid trip without having to befriend any smelly hippies or wake up in a compound somewhere in Arizona.

The reason I think it’s so funny when people attempt to de-construct the plot is because there is barely any plot to dismantle: it rapidly devolves into complete and utter nipple-twisting madness before ending on a bewilderingly upbeat musical montage, made more baffling by the fact that every one of importance to what little plot there was has just been gruesomely murdered.

The weirdest thing about the whole film, though, is that the soundtrack has an incredible knack for re-producing itself, in songs and the soundtracks for other much better known films. (How much of a similarity you see in those songs depends on how willing you are to believe in ghosts, conspiracy theories and Gary Barlow’s terrifying alter-ego, Barry Garlow.)

Versus (2000)

Director Ryuhei Kitamura (best known for the criminally Oscar-snubbed Midnight Meat Train) is what happens when you let a man with un-medicated ADHD and a Fist of the North Star boxset loose in a forest with a camera, thirty feet of steel cable and some de-commissioned stunt harnesses.

I’ve never been sure how to review Versus because it’s not so much a film as it is a whirlwind of punch-ups and ham-fisted acting. The film attempts to juggle several historical flashbacks with a mafia subplot, a buddy-cop movie, a rejected George A. Romero script and an advert for sunglasses. It never once starts to make sense, but it never stops being awesome, either.

I think there might also be some comedic elements tossed in there, as well, but Japanese comedy is sometimes hard to grasp because many of the things they consider entertainment are so far removed from anything we understand in the West that you’re never really sure if you’re supposed to laugh when a man gets leathered in the nuts with a giant mousetrap or if it’s a subtle, psychological ploy to make Japan appear un-invadable.

I mean, if a man is willing to shatter his pelvis on rock on Takeshi’s Castle for a prize no one ever seems to win and which probably doesn’t even exist, then what do you think he’s going to do to the White Devil when they come for his pocky and anime-girl-shaped love-pillow?

Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

For all its faults, TGP can never be accused of misleading its audience: It’s set in Tokyo, it’s gory as all hell, and the director presumably had some very frank discussions with the police after filming wrapped up.

I’m assuming that this is one of those films where you have to really suspend your disbelief, because it’s the only way I can mentally square away a quadriplegic woman with swords for legs being used as the prelude to a surprise birthday party. There’s a few things I’m willing to accept as cultural differences, but even with that generously wide scope for insanity and my Japan Goggles on this film is still weird as balls.

Despite the title, the action scenes for the first half of the film are surprisingly weak…until the antagonist scalps himself and grows machine gun barrels instead of eyes. I never thought I’d see a film that made me think the mutants from Total Recall were phoning it in, but that was before I saw a half-woman-half-chair piss all over an eager audience in a strip club (I feel like I should be deleting my internet history, just typing that.)

I’ve not checked yet, but I fully expect to discover TGP was based on a manga, because it’s the only excuse for attempting special effects that are so far out of the budget range, and why they use editing techniques that would be considered shameful by those Windows Movie Maker savants responsible for such Youtube classics as ‘Nickleback Slideshow’ and ‘My Ugly Kid’s Second Birthday.’

For years I’ve had this theory that ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is only on TV to put anyone who watches more than five minutes of it on a register, and that’s the same kind of vibe I get from Tokyo Gore Police: the only possible reason this is on Netflix is to give the police a rough idea of how many squad vans it’s going to take to bring you down; because after you’ve watched a prostitute bite a man’s joystick off and grow a crocodile vagina, you’re not watching for fun anymore.

Remember how in Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino used different film styles to communicate how happy Uma Thurman’s life was before she got shot to shit and how awful it was afterward? TGP kind of goes for the same thing, and it’s actually a trend I’m familiar with in Japanese cinema; the difference here being that, when the film flashes back to the halcyon days of our heroine’s childhood, it’s to watch a man in a ski mask, hanging off a cardboard cut-out of a mountain, literally explode her father’s head with a rifle.

The film is such a sporadic festival of ultraviolence, that it makes The Story of Ricky look both tame and coherent, by comparison; and I would remind you that that is the film wherein a man attempts to throttle our (Violence) hero with his own large intestine.

Bonus Joke That Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else: Towards the end of the film, the preposterous levels of violence are interspersed with a sexy woman dancing around. It’s much what I imagine a typical night in Chris Brown’s house to be like.

Uzumaki (2000)

You know that way where, even when you think you’re utterly prepared for something, it ends up being ninety minutes of people talking about spirals? I had extremely high hopes for Uzumaki, (which I’m told translates to ‘spiral’,) being a film based on the manga of the same name by artist and full-time lunatic, Junji Ito; a man who gave sharks robot legs and made Frankenstein look like this:

The point I’m trying to make is that Junji Ito is a man who makes Tim Burton’s childhood look happy. I’ve spent the last two or three years trying to read as much of his work as I can because genuinely scary stories have been in short supply ever since I depleted my entire fear gland by watching the original Ring when I was fifteen (Bonus Story: When my friend tried to take the video back to the rental store the woman shrieked and threw it back at him, yelling that he had to make a copy and pass it on. Then she started laughing and put it back on the shelf while we all went home to contemplate our broken lives.)

The film benefits from being shot as if half the production crew thought they were making a charming period drama, and the other half an Eastern-European propaganda reel; the washed out locations and genuinely weird looking cast giving the whole thing an air of off-season Blackpool at chucking-out time. This dichotomy lends the film a surreal and disjointed, dreamlike quality that I’m not convinced was intentional but is, nonetheless, very effective.

Also, I can’t tell if it’s the language barrier, but the male lead delivers every one of his lines with all the monotone enthusiasm of a man with ten dead hookers in his freezer telling his neighbour that the smell must be coming from a dead badger that crawled under the porch. As well as this, many of the scenes are shakily filmed with all the intimacy and subtlety of a pervert inching along a tree branch toward a bedroom window, but it all works in the films favour, making it seem less like people acting and more like a camera crew wandered into the most batshit insane seaside resort in the world and decided that they may as well video-tape some evidence for the police to find with their bodies.

Anyway, enough foreplay: so far in this list we’ve seen heads get exploded and women grow crocodile vaginas, but the reason Uzumaki takes pride of place in this list is because of this.

I’m not sure how clear that image is, but what you’re essentially seeing is a person crammed into a washing machine with a lizard tongue. Why? Because spirals.

If you ever do plan on watching Uzumaki, though, I’ll give you this one piece of advice: don’t go in expecting jumps and thrills every second of every scene. Unlike The Story of Ricky that was willing to tart itself up and rip noses off in the first ten minutes, it’ll be at least thirty minutes in this film before you see a boy start turning into a snail.

That’s another point, actually: much like how the gore in Story of Ricky was too exaggerated and fake to actually scare anyone, Uzumaki isn’t the kind of horror film that’ll have you jumping out your seat or sleeping with the lights on. It’s the kind of horror where after watching you just feel kind of off, and that during watching you’ll constantly be making that face like you’re trying to remember your Gran’s birthday and simultaneously get some food out from between your teeth with your tongue.

If House is an acid trip, then Uzumaki is the comedown: it isn’t just a slow burner, you’ll be about a third of the way through the film before anyone even strikes a match, but once it gets going it’s a relentless punch in the brain right up until the credits roll.

My only real complaint about this film –and I’m going to sound like an elitist tosser here but bear with me– is that it doesn’t have anywhere near the budget to properly capture Junji Ito’s vision, and almost all of the best bits from the manga are either trimmed or cut entirely from the films ninety minute running time. Add to this the fact that the last five minutes of the film are literally a slideshow and it starts to feel like this film was never even really finished, properly.

It’s definitely worth watching, and if you go in with no prior knowledge then you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more, but if you really want the full experience then I’d thoroughly recommend reading the original stories along with anything else the mad bastard has written.