Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The MACHINE GIRL California Roll!

(aka. Kataude Machine Girl)

Dir. Noboru Iguchi

Minase Yashiro
Ryôji Okamoto
Kentaro Shimazu
Taro Suwa
Yûya Ishikawa

Year: 2008

Format Viewed: DVD

Hi Blog!

So what can I say? MACHINE GIRL absolutely, positively does not need my review -- nor any review for that matter -- because it is essentially critic proof. Pulled from the same brackish waters as the Rodriguez/Tarantino GRINDHOUSE double feature (replete with Bruce Lee yellow and black jump suit font via Tarantino's pop cultural rejiggering) Noboru Iguchi's MACHINE GIRL is an attempt to be knowingly sleazy and exploitative and in doing so, give the audience what they want: sailor suits, geysers of blood and heaps of shot up people that look like poorly masticated hamburger. But the question you should be asking yourself, if you're a curious soul like me is: exactly who is the audience for this film? Japanese? Non-Japanese?

But before I get into that, let me tell you what the "The One-Armed Machine Girl" is all about.

Ami plays basketball, can do a li'l bit of Karate, and looks good in a sailor outfit. In fact, she's so damn sexy that even her circle of femme friends lust after her. But did you know that Ami also has a high school aged brother named Yu? Fortunately for Ami, Yu doesn't mess up Ami's cuteness by being ugly and together they laugh and shadow box with each other; personifying the best in filial love. But alas, behind that cute smile all is not well in Yu-land because he's a giant puss. Like flies to fecal matter, the bullies are attracted to Yu and want to kick his ass 10 ways from Sunday and this, it turns out, is where the story comes from.

Yu, together with his nerdy friend Takashi, are receiving the rough treatment from a group of high school hoods headed by the spoiled rotten son of the notorious Hattori Hanzo/Yakuza/Ninja/I-don't-quite-know-what-the-fuck-they-are gang. But hold up! There's more to the back story it seems. As it turns out, Ami and Yu have been walking around with a cosmic kick-me sign on them. They've got a vortex of bad luck around them and their brief moments of happiness are in actuality superficial displays masking deep emotional scarring. Taking a page from Lemony Snicket, Ami and Yu's folks are dead having committed suicide after suffering the burden of an erroneous murder rap (never explored, nor explained). (Incidentally, this strikes me as incredibly selfish of their parents but it's good for character motivation so I'll go with it.) At any rate, imagine the pain that Ami suffers when Yu is killed by the evil high school yakuza brat and his evil cohorts! She's inconsolable and revenge becomes her modus operandi.

Alas, cuteness has its limitations and Ami has zero luck tracking down her brother's (and Takashi's) killers. Fortunately, through some luck and cleverly placed deus ex machina, Ami discovers Yu's diary where he'd helpfully scrawled the names of the bullies. Voila! We now have a revenge film. Tracking down these assholes, Ami discovers that it's very much 'nurture' and not 'nature' that has turned these kids into murderous little shits; soon enough Ami is mutilating the various parents too. Cue fights and carnage which all leads to a creative and yet somehow contrived (or is it forced?) gore set-piece that culminates in Yu losing her left arm. But being the hero, Ami doesn't bleed to death and in her stupor she conveniently stumbles into Yu's dead pal Takashi's folk's garage who, in a amusing subversion of audience expectation, turn out to be former bosozoku lovers with a knack for auto mechanics and metal shop. Crafting a gatling gun that can mount on Ami's arm she becomes the titular "Machine Girl" and soon is mowing down dinks by the dozens (or half-dozens), leaving pureed bodies in her wake. (Nerd question: is it really possible to miss that badly when shooting a gatling gun in close quarers?)

A month or so back I wrote a bit about a talk I gave at the Japan Film Festival. In it I argued that Hollywood's remakes Asian horror to look and feel like Japanese horror-- even when the original source material isn't from Japan-- is tantamount to claiming that a California Roll is Japanese food even though it isn't. Further more, this packaging of the films as Japanese-like has fostered an expectation in the audience that is incorrect and as a result is forcing filmmakers to produce more works that are simulacra of what is thought to be Japanese. I called this the California Roll as film because just as California rolls aren't wa-shoku it has become what people in the west consider part of a typical Japanese meal.

Ladies and gentlemen guess what? I think what we have here with MACHINE GIRL is a perfect example of a Japanese crew making a California Roll explicitly for the foreign market. (Or would that be for the domestic market in the US?) MACHINE GIRL's production financing (and I don't know the exact break down here so bear with me here) came in part from Media Blasters (aka. Tokyo Shock) via their Fever Dreams production arm. I would argue that the aim of a film like this as judge by the kind of film it is (low-budget Japanese exploitation), to the elements used (High School girls! Sailor outfits! weapons! Gore!) were all deliberately calculated to maximize the satisfaction of the intended audience and thereby Media Blasters profits.

Don't get me wrong here; this isn't a criticism of good business per se and in fact knowing who your audience is and actually delivering in large part on the promised film is no small feat. MACHINE GIRL does so, I think. I do think that the film needed some nudity in it, because a true exploitation leaves no grimy stone unturned. (Besides, why would you hire an AV starlet like Asami and NOT use some of her goods? That's like hiring, I dunno, Orson Welles and having his keep his mouth shut.)

But as much as I had fun watching this film, there's something incredibly odd about it: it doesn't feel like I'm watching a Japanese exploitation film that has somehow lucked out and gotten a DVD release here in the US. It feels like someone had watched a bunch of gonzo Miike Takashi films and one or two Sono Sion flicks said, "Shit we can do that!" and forked over a 150,000 clams to get it made. To put it another way, it felt as authentic as the Kill Bill did to the Asian films Tarantino was making love to. The key difference here is that MACHINE GIRL has been made in large part by Japanese people. But somehow it still chafes; it doesn't fit right. It feels like a Japanese chef has been hired to prepare food that is thought to be Japanese food, but really isn't.

All in all, I enjoyed the film enough. It vacillates between some smart filmmaking (the high school ninja club attacks!) and some incredibly embarrassing production short-comings (Halloween cobwebs and spiders production design?) but for a silly night out it's all right. But I can't shake the feeling that this film could have been better. How? I think ultimately it should've come down to less Tarantino cliche and more expectation subversion. The school girl thing is cute, I guess, but it's played out. Less California Rolls and more regional fare, please.

Here's, like, a BILLION links to MACHINE GIRL via Twitchfilm.


Anonymous said...

...just think what all that money could have bought : some nice licenses, and some pubilicity for them...

Nicholas Rucka said...

You're totally right.