I grew up watching a lot of gory horror movies. In fact, I felt like I was something of an aficionado, if that term can be used to describe an interest in the cinematic effects behind decapitations, disembowelments, eye injuries, skull crushes etc. Movies like Evil Dead, The Thing, Dead Alive and Dawn of the Dead were (and are) faves, and part of that enjoyment is – god help me – down to the messy, bloody, gory effects that always made me laugh out loud, even when they also made me cringe.
Over the years my interest and enjoyment of those kinds of films has lessened somewhat, but I still enjoy the occasional spine removal or torso bisection. Uh… in horror movies, that is.
Oh, that reminds me, fair warning – we’ll be taking a trip down
One of the casualties of this lessening of my capacity for carnage has been the Japanese splatterpunk genre. Starting with 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there has been this sub-genre of exceptionally gory Japanese horror (or horror/comedy) movies that featured extreme body modification and fountains of blood. We’re talking movies like 1991’s Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricky in which a man is disemboweled and then uses his intestines to strangle another man. Or 2008’s Tokyo Gore Police in which a woman’s lower half has been replaced by a crocodile’s mouth. I always enjoyed the over-the-top ridiculousness of these films, but I watched fewer and fewer of them over the past decade.
Which brings us to the movies I watched last night. I’ve heard of Meatball Machine, of course – mostly that it was somewhat derivative of that godfather of all body-mod Japanese horror movies, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but with less artistic merit. I filed it away as a film I’d probably never see, but there it was in my suggested queue. I wondered how long it had been since I’d last watched a splatterpunk film and, other than a vague image of a woman with drills where here breasts would normally be (I think it’s from Machine Gun Girl), I couldn’t remember. So I said “what the hell” and here we are.
I watched both of these films on Amazon Prime. The first film is also available for free on Tubi, while Kodoku is free on Vudu (both with ads). They have varying availability for rent and purchase as well, with Kodoku enjoying a wider array of services. Both films are also available on Blu-ray.
In the back alleys of Tokyo creatures that seem partly men and partly machine duke it out to the death with weapons made from scrap and pieces of their own bodies. This is the result of alien invaders, parasites that attach to a host, modify their bodies and then use them to kill others of their kind – with the winner eating the loser. (The parasite, that is, not the human host.)
These ‘Necroborgs’ are big, ugly monstrosities – part Tetsuo from Akira (when his arm goes all crazy) and part Tetuso: The Iron Man, with machinery and flesh co-existing in obviously uncomfortable ways. How well the effects work differs from monster to monster, but they’re all ridiculous and gory and hilarious. Watching biomachine people have the equivalent of a bum fight in a back alley is going to look silly, no matter how “epic” the enhancements are.
At the same time this is going on we’re introduced to a lonely, akward factory worker – Yoji (Issei Takahashi), whose days are spent working, tinkering with machines, lending money to his neighbor and pining for a local wash-woman, Sachiko (Aoba Kawai). He finds one of the parasites, seemingly disabled, in the trash and takes it home. Note that for later. THEN he comes across Sachiko being assaulted by a manager from the same factory where he works. He tries to help, but gets beaten for his trouble. Sachiko helps him get home, which is when that ‘disabled’ parasite wakes up and attacks Sachiko – turning her into a Necroborg.
There’s all kinds of triggering unpleasantness in this film, FYI – from a violent transvestite to stories of familial abuse to unnecessary sexual attacks by alien death machines. Those are the real ugly parts of the film, not the parts where people are shooting explosive bone projectiles at each other.
Yoji ends up a Necroborg as well, but his love for Sachiko allows him to destroy his controller. The rest of the film is mostly about his attempt to save Sachiko and the gory battles they engage in while he tries to do so.
I actually kind of liked this movie. I liked the characters, somehow, and the silly (but extremely bloody) battles between the Necroborgs are entertaining and gruesome. I could have done without the casual misogyny and exploitative sexual elements, but the controller puppets are hilarious and there’s an infectious energy to it that carries you over the rough spots and endless fight sequences. The ending finds the controller aliens planning on pitting more humans with emotional connections against each other because of the quality of the fights.
Which you would think would lead directly into…
Meatball Machine Kodoku
Director Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police, Helldriver) essentially ignores the ending of the previous film only to recreate it’s essential plot: a lonely sad-sack pines for a kind woman and this helps him to retain his humanity when the Necroborgs turn him into a biomechanical monster. In this case, said sad-sack is Yuji (Yoji Tanaka), a bill collector who is terrible at his job, bullied by his boss, and constantly soaked for cash by his mother. On top of that, he’s just found out he has cancer. On top of THAT, aliens have cut off his section of the city in a transparent glass bottle and have set about converting all the inhabitants within it into… yadayadayada. We’ve seen it before, although Nichimura being who he is we also get more over-the-top gore and ridiculous biomechanical designs than the previous film.
What’s odd is that the first 30 minutes or so of the film are pretty restrained and interesting. There’s very little in the way of gore and it comes off as more of a surreal character study, with Yuji’s ‘freedom’ (after his cancer diagnosis) leading him to be more assertive… but no less of a sad sack, unfortunately, as his inappropriate November/May crush on bookshop clerk Kaoru (Yurisia) leads her to bring him to her cult.
In addition, there’s this weird lady in a green raincoat and a tall green hat, looking like somebody from a British 60’s Mod movie, wandering around painting white lines everywhere. These lines turn out to be the indicator for the giant glass container that comes down (and the gore asserts itself loudly at this point as a policeman is cut in half and a man taking a leak loses his member)
Kodoku is more obviously a comedy with straightforward gags and characters (including a group of odd dojo members who may or may not also be police). There’s also more than a heaping helping of nudity and sexism, with a strip club full of Necroborg-transformed women fighting with weaponized breasts, amongst other things.
The monsters and gore are just as ingenious as in the first film, but there’s just too much of too little. The fights seem endless and aren’t as entertaining. The gore, too, is ‘enhanced’ with a lot of blood spray, both practical and digital, that ends up creating visual confusion. There are details – including people’s innermost thoughts projected onto the glass container when they touch it – that don’t seem to go anywhere or have any purpose.
That being said, Tanaka is way more likeable an actor than Takahashi, so I was more invested in his fate and enjoyed whenever he was on screen. Even when it was one more endless, bloody fight scene with gory sprays of ichor in slow motion.
The Bottom Line
I don’t know as I can really recommend the Meatball Machine movies. They’re ugly and coarse and full of cheap jokes and metric tons of gore. (Literally – Nishimura has said that he used 4 tons of fake blood in Meatball Machine Kodoku.) That being said, I DID enjoy them – though more the original than it’s follow up – so if Japanese splatterpunk is your thing these are well worth a watch. And if Kodoku had managed to figure out a way to make the first 30 minutes into a whole film, that might have been something interesting and more than simply an exercise in excess.