Friday, May 9, 2008

REVIEW: The Machine Girl - Noboru Iguchi (2008)

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.


Don said...

Good to see a balanced review of this film for a change. Just one correction: Yashiro Minase is just a little-known pin-up girl ( Asami and Honoka, who play the vengeance-seeking mother and the evil godmother with the killer bra respectively, are both bonafide porno queens.

logboy said...

from your description of your experiences in hearing their reactions, i get the impression many in the audience were perhaps watching the film in a fairly distant or removed manner, despite the seemingly positive reactions, the sense they've been successfully entertained.

the big difficulty in balancing the responses to the film come from how films that aren't representative still contain elements that can make up the entirety of a regular fans overall interest - plenty of fans of japanese film (particularly in recent years) are keen, it seems, on the violence and apparently little else. and, even when someone does have a particular fetish for films described as violent, they don't even have to be there predominantly for those elements to be told they're perhaps subconsciously not taking anything more from it that blades and pistols. and that can both be true as well as false.

if the audience getting to see this film is not thinking about it (or being reminded of it) in any kind of broader or contextualised fashion, and they're instead just looking for a good time (or being told that's all it contributes to our lives, then they should be reminded there are plenty of other genres that are pure entertainment to be had that are easily forgotten about - they're not attracting attention on anything like the level this is right now, from anyone.

there are certainly far more examples of how one-hit-wonders can lead to a decade of pain in how companies dig the scene into a hole of repetitive marketing and licensing choices.

violence is not a whole reason to be interested until there's a simplistic or willfully irresponsible description or understanding placed upon it. violence should be described and used rather as part of a "controlled diet". it should also be discussed and experienced certainly with an understanding there are broader reasons why a culture most obviously dominated by centuries of change at the hands of war and gangs will turn to these subjects as popular subject matter; and the films are likely to require some violence because of the nature of the stories... of course they are.

if you look beyond the most obvious hits of american releases, and even just into the stuff which makes up the picture stateside which invariably falls between the cracks, you'll see a whole heap of stuff - family dramas, romances, political stories, social studies, cute animals, food movies, and all kinds of other stuff that can easily defy genre description a lot of the time. and this is why i find 'machine girl' suspicious - it's not that it's so violent, it's that it's apparently based upon the boiled-down representation of what's been most obviously popular with american viewers in recent years (and the perceptions of the overall picture, the value of the industry) that is held much more predominantly outside of japan rather than within it, upon a perception that's become encompassed into supposedly specific interest but exists mostly in what i would term a crossover perception and requirement. and because it's accepted that it's only value is within it's levels of violence - quite telling, i think.

there's a suggest there's a really cynical exercise at work, and i personally fear that even a genuine hit can lead more often to a more simplistic market because there's not been anything but positive reactions on the whole...

crossover hits are rarely if ever regarded as one part of the process involved in building a bigger interest. unfortunately, given how american companies and consumers treat japanese film, these crossover hits are more often taken as indicators of what everyone wants or what everyone is only willing to understand and accept, or as examples of how they need to be persuaded to understand something, or even what they need to be trained to like.

they're not.

Chris MaGee said...

Good point, logboy.... The fact that the producers of the film are playing into the foreign/ North American perception of what a Japanese film should be (ie: buckets of blood and a high level of weirdness).

Like I said, I'm no delicate flower... I in fact own a copy of Tsutsumi Yukihiko's "2LDK" and enjoy it... but "The Machine Girl" wouldn't have bothered me as much if it weren't for the fact that it seemed to be making extreme violence a joke.

keeperdesign said...

Ultraviolence? I thought all Japanese films were about teenagers in love dying of some rare disease.

In all seriousness, whenever a friend or coworker gives me the samurai/yakuza line, I loan them Swing Girls or Kamome Diner or Tampopo or Tora-san. I then make the rest of my collection available, and it puts the bloodier stuff in context.

Chris MaGee said...

Was talking with Don (who's comment is above) and I'm surprised... or maybe intrigued is the better word... that "The Machine Girl" hasn't even been released theatrically in Japan, meanwhile it's coming out on DVD in North America next month! The more I think about this I think logboy is right... That this is a film geared toward the North American audience who crave japanese "weirdness" and bloodshed.