1987. Paul Verhoeven releases Robocop, not only one of the most influential science fiction films of the 1980’s, but also one of its best satires. It was given an X rating for violence, and cuts where necessary to achieve an R rating. It lost some of the over the top cartoon quality the violence originally achieved, therefore losing part of its satirical edge. Two years later a young Japanese film maker called Shinya Tsukamoto releases a film called Tetsuo: Iron Man, a similar brilliant extreme metaphor for humankind’s destructive dependence on technology. Eight years after that, Takashi Miike releases Full Metal Yakuza, yet another story of the fusion of man and machine, this time made for the Japanese video market. While I’m sure other Japanese films influenced by Verhoeven’s masterpiece were released during that ten year span, and still are (see Tokyo Gore Police), it’s in Full Metal Yakuza that Miike takes the almost borderless style that made Robocop special, that constant dancing between genres, and places it in the confines of a Yakuza film.
Kensuke Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) is a member of the Yakuza, and a pussy. He can’t keep it up in bed. He’s beaten up by teenage street punks. He wets himself when sent to perform even the simplest gangland shooting. He idolizes Tosa (Takeshi Caesar), a tough as nails, macho Yakuza who was sent to jail for murder. Upon his release, he’s quickly gunned down, and Hakune, who is unfortunate enough to be accompanying him, is gunned down too. However Kensuke awakens in the lab of a mad scientist, who just happens to be working on a way to combine man and machine. Soon Kensuke’s head is combined with the physical traits of Tosa (including his giant, uncircumcised penis), finally infusing it with a bullet proof, metallic body. Kensuke is quickly turned into half man, half machine and all Yakuza! Tosa attempted to shield Kensuke from the hail of bullets that ended both of their lives, so he feels an obligation to exact his revenge on those responsible. Soon Kensuke fills the screen with blood, dismembered limbs and giant penis’.
Takashi Miike stumbled across the script for Full Metal Yakuza, and when asked what he wanted to do that could be thrown quickly onto Japanese video store shelves, it was the first film on his list. In the hands of most people working in the Japanese video market in the late nineties, Full Metal Yakuza could have been a cheap, trite, Robocop imitation. And while at times it remains obviously cheap, Miike injects it with enough of his now typical cinematic style that it ends up being anything but trite. Like Verhoeven, Miike uses shock tactics as means to elicit an emotional response. It was only a year before that he really kick started this trend with Fudoh: The New Generation, and in Full Metal Yakuza he continues his path of shock and awe. The obsession with machismo as defined by ones ability to deal pain, withstand physical abuse and the size of ones penis, used so well in DOA 3, begins its gestation here. Full Metal Yakuza is my no means a great movie. It was made on a small budget and an even shorter schedule, using a poor script, based on old Yakuza plot devices and character archetypes. But thanks to Miike, he pushes those archetypes and devices to a point that in 1997 was still somewhat groundbreaking. This is not only the furthest thing from the Yakuza films that Miike started off his career making, but quickly becomes a satire of them. In retrospect, it’s not nearly as shocking or groundbreaking as Miike’s later work, but it’s still interesting to watch because it’s at this point in his career when Miike was using the video market as his playground, to develop the style and approach that will define him as a director today.