Monday, January 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #8 – I’m Sorry, But Japan is Just Messed Up

by Lisa Morton

I must confess to a longstanding love/hate relationship with Japanese culture and film. It’s always perplexed me that the same country that could produce a genius like Hayao Miyazaki – who makes glorious animated epics usually centering around a smart, courageous girl – could also give us the grotesque, rabid cartoon rape of UROTSUKIDOJI. Near-future dystopian nightmares like BATTLE ROYALE suggest that the Japanese are terrified of the future, while frantic horror/scifi crossovers like TETSUO: THE IRON MAN also imply a profound discomfort with their own bodies.
And along comes 2008’s TOKYO GORE POLICE, which rolls all those contradictions and dreads into one package…and that’s why I like it so much.
Directed with surprising style by Yoshihiro Nishimura, TOKYO GORE POLICE’s marketing, reputation and of course title would lead most viewers to expect little more than a gorefest, but it’s really much more interesting…but before we go any further, I will say this: I won’t be at all surprised by anyone who can’t see past the gore (as seems to have been the case with a few reviewers), because it really is beyond excessive. The Japanese love their blood – heck, we’ve all seen the ‘70s Samurai movies in which severed limbs spout high-pressure streams into the air – and modern film technology has allowed all of their body dysmorphic disease-addled dreams to be played out to their ultimate extremes. TOKYO GORE POLICE really is a non-stop panoply of beheadings, disembowelments, transformations, and even a good old-fashioned quartering, so let’s just say right now that it’s not for the squeamish.

But beneath that blood-drenched exterior (which is frequently so over-the-top that it becomes surreal and/or comic, thus easing the ability to take it all in) is a surprisingly interesting little film about a people wrestling with issues of gender, crime, and politics. Our lead character Ruka (played with wonderful , bubbling-just-under-the-surface rage by AUDITION’s Eihi Shiina) is a cop in a near-future Japan, when the police force has been privatized, perversity is the norm, and self-mutilation has become commercialized (young girls are encouraged to buy “cute” knives to cut themselves with). The corporate police force has their hands full dealing with a new breed of criminals called “Engineers” – these are hyperkinetic maniacs who can regrow severed limbs and turn wounds into weapons. Ruka is a member of the elite “Engineer Hunter” squad, and is herself the daughter of a cop, who she saw shot to death as a child. Ruka, who was raised by the head of the new corporate police force, has dedicated herself to solving the mystery of the origin of the Engineers, even while exterminating them wherever they wreak havoc.

TOKYO GORE POLICE lifts more than a few times from Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, but this is BLADE RUNNER filtered through layers of Asian polymorphous perversity. Remember the scene when Deckard tracked down the snake-dancing replicant Zhora at a freaky night club? Well, TOKYO GORE POLICE has that scene…except this night club is really freaky, featuring surgically altered women who can be rented for the night. After displaying a woman with a penis nose, one with sutured breasts, and one apparently combined with a snail, the scene climaxes with the revelation of a human body transformed into nothing but a chair that proceeds to spray the ecstatic onlookers with urine. Certainly the disgust level is pretty high here, but there’s more going on in the scene as well. Surely there’s a knowing reference to the famous Edogawa Rampo short story “The Human Chair”, and I’m betting the snail girl may be partly inspired by yokai, or nature spirits, in Japanese mythology. In fact, those references to revered objects in Japanese culture, from the Samurai helmets of the private police to the montage that riffs on a traditional Japanese storytelling method involving shifted pages, is all part of what makes TOKYO GORE POLICE so much more than just another wild gore ride.
TOKYO GORE POLICE also riffs on Japanese gender wrestlings. One of my pet peeves in Japanese movies (and, for that matter, manga) is how often they’ll look for any possible way to work in a peek at the white panties beneath a schoolgirl’s prim skirt…and yet this is the same country that gave us the statuesque and strong swordswomen in movies like LADY SNOWBLOOD and SEX AND FURY. TOKYO GORE POLICE actually mashes both of those takes on femininity into one witty scene, as an Engineer schoolgirl goes tete-a-tete (or is that tit-a-tit?) with a female cop wielding a traditional naginata, a spear-like weapon with a blade on the end. The fight ends when Engineer Schoolgirl, sliced across the chest, suddenly sprouts boobs that spray Amazon Cop Lady with green acid that eats her away in seconds. TOKYO GORE POLICE is telling us that more lurks beneath the school uniform than just white panties. As if that wasn’t enough, the film also features a scene in which Ruka, disguised as a prostitute to bait an Engineer, gets groped in a crowded subway train and retaliates by dragging the groper outside and chopping off his hands, then popping open her umbrella and strolling away languorously beneath the rain of blood from the screaming man’s stumps. A stern warning to Japanese men is herewith issued.

Also like Deckard in BLADE RUNNER, these cops are in it for the money…but unlike BLADE RUNNER, TOKYO GORE POLICE presents one of the most vicious looks at a privatized police force imaginable. We learn that Ruka’s father was killed because he opposed the privatization, and by the film’s end the police force has given itself complete immunity and is running rampant and unchecked across Tokyo, all while goaded on by their blonde bombshell dispatcher. For me the most horrific image in TOKYO GORE POLICE is not one of wild bodily warping or gallons of blood spraying, but a shot of one of the cops sitting in a street laughing while surrounded by the bodies of civilians he’s just murdered.
Unfortunately that scene is followed by the film’s one big clunker: As Ruka speeds across town to reach her final showdown, the film stops for a clumsy, so-called comic scene involving a Chinese man and a…well, I’m not sure what the other guy is supposed to be, but he looks like an African American with a pinhead. The scene is certainly not funny (these two doofuses are digging through a mound of body parts, apparently looking for pieces to eat), but does shine a particularly nasty light on Japanese nationalism, especially given their treatment of the Chinese in World War II. Perhaps the scene is trying to suggest that this is how the Japanese regard anyone outside their culture, but unfortunately it also wants you to cheer on Ruka when she runs the pair down.
But that’s a small stumble in what’s otherwise a genuinely intriguing and challenging film. TOKYO GORE POLICE also benefits from Nishimura’s superbly stylized direction, which paints frames in vivid colors and renders them with simple backgrounds that focus the viewer’s attention on the foreground, much like a comic book. The film is also aided by a score that ranges from J-punk to a solid main theme composed by Koh Nakagawa. And then, of course, there are all those gore effects, most of which look just real enough to be revolting but not so real as to be unwatchable.
If you’re willing to put up with the bloodletting, I highly recommend TOKYO GORE POLICE, which could alternatively have been titled A TEXTBOOK ON JUST HOW EFFED-UP THE JAPANESE PEOPLE REALLY ARE. Pour yourself a nice sake and enjoy.


--Lisa Morton