Reviewed by Chris MaGee
As the lights came up after the Toronto premiere of Noboru Iguchi’s “The Machine Girl” I found myself not only at odds with the rest of the audience who were loudly applauding, hooting and hollering their approval, but at odds with myself too. Maybe it was the fact that at 2:30 am I’m not much in the mood for hooting and hollering, or that for a guy whose taste runs more to Teshigahara and Ozu and less to fountains of arterial spray, but although satisfactorily entertained I seemed to be one of the few people in the theatre who wasn’t sent into rapturous giggles by the story of a vengeful Japanese high school girl with a bionic arm. That’s not to say that it was a bad film, because it definitely wasn’t. The reaction of the audience attested to that, but I found myself struggling with how to review a film that left me feeling exhilarated and disgusted at the same time. In the wee hours of Sunday morning my sleep deprived brain could only think of one solution: two reviews, one coming down on the “pro” side of “The Machine Girl” and the other coming down on the con” side, so… here goes:
PRO: In Noboru Iguchi’s “The Machine Girl” we witness the birth of a classic camp horror heroine. On the surface Ami, played by porn actress Minase Yashiro, is your average Japanese high school student. She plays basketball and studies hard, but she and her brother Yu are on the outside looking in. Their parents were falsely accused of murder and the stigma caused them to kill themselves, so when Yu and his friend Takeshi are being brutally bullied by the son of a yakuza/ ninja clan leader she’s the only one who can come to their aid, but her “nothing good comes from violence” motto is not the kind of protection they need. The two boys are murdered by the bullies and Ami trades in her pacifist ideals for bloodthirsty revenge, going up against the yakuzu/ ninja and losing an arm in the process; but with the help of Takeshi’s car mechanic mother she gains an arsenal in the form of a mechanical machine gun/ chainsaw arm… and man, does she use it! “The Machine Girl” is hip deep in gore: decapitations, amputations, disembowelments, you name it it’s here and all being meted out with delirious glee by synchronized ninja, a team of “Super Mourners” and of course Ami herself. The sheer overkill (bad pun) of blood spray and splatter will at first have you squirming, but eventually you’ll feel like a giddy little kid running through the sprinkler on your parent’s lawn. Ten times more entertaining than “Yo-Yo Girl Cop” and one-thousand times more entertaining than either of the “Azumi” films “The Machine Girl” is the dictionary definition of a midnight movie; one that makes you cringe, cheer and laugh in equal measure!
CON: One of the main reasons I started The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow was to show the full breadth of Japanese cinema, a genre (if you could call it that) that most people I met assumed was dedicated to reams of film showing samurai hacking each other to pieces or yakuza systematically torturing each other. I don’t blame these people for their misunderstanding. While most countries produce a small number of ultra-violent films they’re never judged globally for it, but for some reason Japan is. Maybe it’s the undeserved reputation of Japan as being a “weird” country or it might go all the way back to the conduct of the Imperial Army during WW2, but for every ten people I tell that I love Japanese films eight of them will say, “Oh, they’re really violent.” A film like “The Machine Girl” doesn’t help the situation. The story of yet another girl dressed in her sailor suit high school uniform who this time is transformed into a merciless killing machine, or at least semi-machine appeals to the lover of comic books and camp in all of us and director Noboru Iguchi ratchets every scene up full volume so you find yourself involuntarily laughing at some truly nauseating violence. The key here though is that unlike, say, Monty Python whose humour included violence, "The Machine Girl's" humour is about violence. What epitomized the experience for me was having a packed theatre cackling uncontrollably as Ami, The Machine Girl, knifes a woman in the back of the head, the tip of the blade protruding out of her mouth and the woman proceeds to vomit up her lunch, blood and her own intestines on her sons severed head. I had a flash to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” where people would go and see comedies that consisted of people getting mown in half by machine gun fire… not far off what you’ll find in “The Machine Girl”. I’m no shrinking violet, but as my girlfriend and I left the theatre I could overhear people saying things like “I wish other countries made violent films like in Japan,” and “That film was like the Japanese version of “Scarface”” (??????) It’s reactions and attitudes like this that has distributor scrambling to release more and more gory imports instead of wider sampling of what Japanese cinema has to offer.