Japanese filmmakers will almost always tell you that they make films for the domestic market first and foremost. If foreigners happen to like them too, that’s a nice little bonus, like an after-dinner mint.
Yoshihiro Nishimura, a makeup and special effects maestro whose credits include the international cult hits “Suicide Club,” “Meatball Machine” and “L Change the World,” thumbed his nose at this Japan-first orthodoxy with his first theatrical feature as a director, “Tokyo Gore Police” (2008). Made with a C-list cast, this hyperviolent splatter-fest, set in a dystopian future Tokyo, referenced everyone from Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop”) to Takashi Miike (“Dead or Alive” and several dozen more).
Local theatergoers gave it a pass, but abroad “Tokyo Gore Police” found an appreciative fan-boy audience, who lavishly praised it as “crazed” and “depraved,” while hailing Nishimura as the latest Japanese bad-boy cult sensation — a Miike for the noughties.
His followup, “Kyuketsu Shojo tai Shojo Franken” (international title: “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl,”), codirected with Naoyuki Tomomatsu, received its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival in June and won more foreign fan-boy raves and festival invitations.
At home, however, Nishimura struggled to find theaters for the film, and eventually made a public complaint about the obtuseness of the local industry.
Now, however, “Kyuketsu” is set to open tomorrow in two Tokyo theaters, but I doubt whether ticket sales will be much better than that of “Tokyo Gore Police.”
At the same time, the film shows why Nishimura has crossed borders so successfully, containing as it does all the elements — wacky genre spoofery, sexy short-skirted girls and enough fake blood to fill Korakuen Stadium — that foreign fans demand in Asian Extreme entertainment.
Nishimura, though, isn’t like some makers of for-export cult pics, who are constantly winking at the audience about the cheesiness of what they’re seeing. Instead he and his team have been too busy having fun creating shocks and gags — the more outrageous the better — and that sense of enjoyment comes across on the screen. At certain moments the revelry in blood sprays and flying body parts crosses over to self-intoxication, but all in all the film is a romp.
Complaining that the effects aren’t up to the standards of Hollywood is like complaining that a Prius doesn’t accelerate as fast as a Porsche — rather beside the point. Nishimura knows what many Hollywood makers of technically accomplished, but emotionally null eye candy don’t: Imagination — and the freedom to use it — trumps pixels.
His story, based on a manga by Shungiku Uchida, is hardly original, though.
A handsome high-school boy, Mizushima (Takumi Saitoh), becomes an object of romantic rivalry between two classmates: Keiko (Elly Otoguro), the snarling leader of a “Gothic Lolita” girl gang, and Monami (Yukie Kawamura), a shy, sweet transfer student. Keiko initially takes the lead, cornering Mizushima with her crew and demanding that he become her boyfriend — or else.
Mizushima, a go-along-to-get-along sort, reluctantly agrees, but when Monami offers him a chocolate for Valentine’s Day, he accepts it, though he barely knows who she is.
After Mizushima starts seeing strange visions and experiencing strange cravings, Monami tells him her secret: She is a vampire and her gift chocolate contained blood that has brought him half way to vampirehood. All he needs to complete the process is a slightly bloody kiss — and they can live happily forever after. Naturally, Mizushima hesitates.
Meanwhile, Keiko susses Monami’s interest in her man and bullies her mercilessly. When she catches Monami and Mizushima kissing — he has decided to accept Monami’s offer (which he can’t refuse), she goes berserk and ends up dead. Finis? Not quite, since Keiko’s creepazoid dad (Kanji Tsuda), the school’s biology teacher, has the mad dream of creating monstrous new life from the dead. With the aid of the slinky school nurse (Sayaka Kametani), he uses Keiko’s corpse as the base for a most ghastly experiment. Vampire Girl is about to meet Frankenstein Girl.
There is plenty of action of a by-now familiar sort. The body parts of both heroines morph into bizarre weaponry and, before their final showdown, they both wreak bloody havoc, with their victims spewing the red stuff like a geyser. Nishimura, however, takes it to another level, with sharper comic timing, cooler effects and a blithe willingness to shock and offend that occasionally outdoes even Miike.
The King of Cult never came up with anything quite like a slo-mo scene in which Monami celebrates sensuously in a victim’s blood shower, while a corny pop tune plays. Also, the film’s gang of ganguro — girls who dress, make themselves up and act like cartoonish versions of African-Americans — embody the sort of gross racial stereotypes that, in Hollywood, went out with blackface and Stepin Fetchit (though Asian stereotypes still flourish there). I know the ganguro are caricatures of a domestic teenage fad that mixes admiration for and ignorance of its models, but they still make for queasy viewing.
Which is part of the point, isn’t it? Even so, for most of its running time, “Kyuketsu” is good, raucous fun of the sort that inspires hoots and cheers abroad, not angry or nauseous walk outs. In Japan, though, Nishimura had better not give up his day job — making effects for movies with a bigger audience than his foreign fans who, as enthusiastic as they are, wouldn’t nearly fill Korakuen, even with prop blood to swim in.