Gantz (2004)

Based on the hit Hiroya Oku manga, the “Gantz” anime follows the story of Kei Kurono (Daisuke Namikawa), Kato Masaharu (Masashi Osato) and Kei Kishimoto (Hitomi Nabatame) as they battle aliens and attempt to survive a deadly world. Kei and Kato are struck by a subway train and killed, after Kato jumped on the tracks to save a homeless man who had fallen. They are then transported to a mysterious apartment room where they find a large black sphere which hands them guns, high-powered suits and a mission to kill aliens that are living on earth. The missions see them again transported to the Tokyo city streets, where they are invisible to regular people, and they are thrust into do or die combat against vicious opponents.

For those familiar with the manga, the anime follows the plot closely early on, diverging from the source material later. The episodes vary between high-octane sci-fi action as the team fight against these weird monsters, that take various forms, and more reflective moments as we see them in their everyday lives (between missions the team is allowed to return to the world of the living). The show does a good job of balancing these two tones, with great characters that have just enough to their personalities to keep you invested in their survival. The animation uses a mix of CG and traditional hand drawn techniques to create an interesting look to the show, allowing for shots to zoom in or swoop around the digital environments. This also enables the animators to produce incredible action sequences. The anime, much like the manga, pushes the boundaries in terms of sexual and violent content, with many scenes cut in the original television broadcast. The extreme nature of the deaths along with a adolescent fascination with female anatomy is something that will appeal to certain viewers, but it is not without thematic importance. The show heightens awareness of the human condition by distancing itself from the sanitized version of reality often served to people. The gore and nudity are justified in what they are trying to say about the key drivers of human interaction.

At the heart of the “Gantz” story are several mysteries that are never fully resolved, but allow the writers to explore various facets of the human experience. Gantz offers the people who are drawn to the room a second chance at life, although the motivations of the sphere and the figure inside are never revealed. We see people put in a high-pressure environment where they are forced to reveal their true nature. Kato’s philosophy of non-violent altruism is put to the test by the violent struggles he is forced into. Kei’s petulance and lack of authority are also exposed as he takes on the missions. Kishimoto is almost a laughable airhead in the early episodes, but as the series progresses she is shown to have great depth. With all its ambiguity, political and social satire, and themes of suicide, societal violence, death, and religion, “Gantz” is amenable to any number of interpretations. In the end, questions of what Gantz is, what it wants, or why any of this is happening, are largely unimportant. What is more fascinating is the examination of society. “Gantz” poses difficult moral questions about violence and killing and the value of human life.

Suicide Club (2001) by Sion Sono

When a group of fifty-four high school girls unexpectedly throw themselves off a platform at Shinjuku station into the path of an oncoming train, detectives are called on to investigate. Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), the detective leading the operation is baffled by these apparently senseless deaths. The main theory appears to be the existence of a suicide cult that young people are mysteriously drawn to. The detectives are then contacted by a hacker calling herself The Bat (Yoko Kamon), who tells them there is a website where they can see red and white circles symbolising men and women who have died. Disturbingly, the dots appear before the suicides. The detectives also discover pieces of skin from the victims, sewn together and wrapped up in long roll. As the suicides show no sign of decreasing, the police face a race against time to uncover the cause. Characters soon uncover  more worrying connections: with a violent underground group led by a man calling himself Genesis (Rolly), and a quintuplet of pre-teen pop idols named Dessert.

Writer-director Sion Sono presents a pitch-black satire about the state of modern society, with elements of graphic horror, police mystery and social commentary. Viewers should be advised that the film is incredibly gory in parts, with liberal use of blood, a macabre plot-point involving a roll of strips of flesh cut from victims, suggestions of animal cruelty, and visceral, grotesque scenes that will stay with you for a long time. While this extreme approach undoubtedly contains an element of childish glee in seeing how many disgusting and bloody scenarios you can show on screen, they are rarely needless. The gut-churning horror is done with the intent to provoke not only a physical but an emotional response, to shock a jaded public into understanding the severity of suicide (something which is often in danger of being trivialised both in society and media). There is no quiet end for these characters, who explode in fountains of gore, while onlookers scream in impotent terror. The film really has one major goal, to satirise a culture that prides itself on collectivism, and following the crowd, that has become hypnotised by banal and childish entertainment to the neglect of thought and individuality. The film manages to step neatly from graphic violence to more emotionally charged scenes where characters are struck with the realisation that they may be partly or wholly to blame for the horror of their situation. In particular, Ryo Ishibashi does a fantastic job of a complex character. The film also has its surreal moments, such as the gang of sadists who perform an impromtu musical number in their underground bowling alley hideout, or the spine-chilling voice of the youngster who calls the detectives to berate them following another death. The film slides easily between its various tones and while it may seem at first to be an exploitative gore-fest, it is actually surprisingly compassionate in its portrayal of suicide. The black humour is largely reserved in the build-up to the deaths, and seems to be mocking not only the commercialised society that alienates people from themselves and others (the film’s main target); but also ridiculing the simplistic explanations put forward by the police. The score by Tomoki Hasegawa helps in establishing a tone that is able to keep up with the film’s shifting tones, and often keys the audience into when the film is being sincere or playful.

The film is intended as a message to the audience to wake up and live your life, rather than following the herd. The film is about discovering your individuality and bemoaning the collectivism that leads to depression and suicide. The film’s commentary on the problem of suicide is wide-ranging and there are many subtle moments that may be missed in a first viewing. This include notions of childhood and adolescence. The pop idol group “Dessert” who play a pivotal role have an average age of 12.5, putting them at the beginning of puberty. While the first group we see commit mass suicide are just slightly older females, suggesting that the film is also taking a swipe at the problems and pressures that can assail young people, especially girls at that age. When the character of Mitsuko arrives at the theatre at the end to be questioned by an audience of children, the film again seems to be hinting at some disconnect between the adult world, with its responsibilities and conditions, and the world the children inhabit, which is free of such things. “Suicide Club” is a film with a bold message, that revels in provoking and pricking the conscience of the audience.

Gothic and Lolita Psycho (2010) by Go Ohara

The subculture of ‘gothloli’ is one that is perfectly suited to this brand of anarchic comedy-horror-action, blending as it does the cutesy cartoonish nature of Lolita with the darker gothic style. Yuki (Rina Akiyama) is a caricature of at typical goth-loli, bedecked in coquettish black Victorian frills, on a mission to avenge the death of her mother for unspecified motives. The film begins in an underground nightspot which seems to be somewhere between a disco, S and M club, and torture dungeon for gangsters. We see people tormented with a blow torch, cage-fighting, or playing an ultra-high stakes game where the penalty is killing a poor victim. This is the kind of establishment where a severed head squashed with a mallet brings a cheer rather than a scream. In this kind of environment, Yuki is hardly out of place. Her target: Sakie, a woman who is controlling the gambling in this establishment. Yuki’s weapon of choice is a lethal umbrella, bullet-proof and with a  sharp blade in the end. We see through flashbacks an attack on Yuki’s family that left her mother dead and her father, a priest, in a wheelchair. Yuki sets out to kill the five people responsible and perhaps find some answers.

Directed by Go Ohara and written by Hisakatsu Kuroki “Goth Loli Psycho” is silly low-budget fun and doesn’t pretend to anything more. We find that each of the characters seems to have paranormal abilities, either telekinesis or psychic powers. There are a few nice touches, such as Yuki burning tarot-style cards each time she dispatches one of her targets. The humour is slapstick but works for the most part, with some laugh-out-loud moments if you have a black sense of humour. The villains are distinguished enough from each other to make their encounters entertaining. There is plenty of action and the direction of the fights is well done. Visual effects are largely practical, and mostly work well, though budget constraints mean there are recognizable rubber heads and limbs. The CG effects are understandably poor, and an example of where suspension of disbelief, or turning a blind eye is required. Likewise, the locations of early fight sequences, a school gym and rooftop, seem a little uninspired. However, the underground nightclub and the climactic setting of the film are fantastic stages for the carnage. All of the actors know exactly how ludicrous the premise is and ham it up at every opportunity. The music has some fantastic choral arrangements for when Yuki executes a rival, playing into the style of the character.

Nobody watching a film called “Goth Loli Psycho” will be expecting high art. It has enough charm to make it entertaining, leaning more to the tongue-in-cheek comedy side than the extreme gore (although there is no shortage of blood on display). From the opening moments we know exactly what film we are getting and it rarely strays from the well-worn revenge film path. Worth checking out if you are looking for something wacky to pass the time.

Meatball Machine Kodoku (2017) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

A sequel/remake to 1999’s “Meatball Machine”, for which Yoshihiro Nishimura provided the special effects, this film sees him take full creative control, both writing and directing. Nishimura is known for his outrageous splatter horror and black comedy with a filmography including “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”. For those who have seen those other works, the first thirty minutes of “Meatball Machine Kodoku” might be something of a shock. It starts pretty simply and could almost be mistaken for a regular drama. Our protagonist, 50-year old Yuji Noda (Yoji Tanaka) works for a debt collection agency, spending his days attempting to extract money for late bill payments and getting nothing but disrespect and slammed doors for his troubles. His boss is less than sympathetic, shouting at the downtrodden Noda. His only respite is a visit to a second-hand bookstore and the lovely Kaoru who works there. Worse is to come for Noda as he discovers that he has cancer. After Kaoru takes him along to a meeting of a bizarre religion, Noda runs away and finds himself enticed into a burlesque club, where he is later ripped off by the staff and thrown out in the street. It may seem as though this is more than enough plot for any movie, but this turns out to be merely preamble. Throughout this a mysterious woman, with white hair and a PVC coat and top hat is wandering around the city. We discover she has in fact been drawing a giant circle that surrounds central Tokyo. A large glass descends on the city trapping a portion of the citizens inside. This is the first look we get at Nishimura’s trademark gore and black humour, as a man urinating in the street has his penis severed, and another couple engaging in a little al fresco sex are cut in half, their lower halves spurting blood while they continue to go at it. And… roll titles. Things are about to get messy.

From this point forward the central plot really kicks into gear. Noda is trapped inside the glass jar with a race of parasitic aliens who are able to take over people’s brains turning them into a conglomeration of machine and flesh and causing carnage wherever they go. Noda has to escape and find Kaoru. Along the way he is helped by a group of martial artists and we see people who he knew before the event transformed into horrifyingly deformed beings, with grotesque outgrowths of organs and mechanical appendages. The film features utterly horrific imagery, but throughout it all there is a twisted sense of fun as the violence is so extreme that it tips into comedy. It is certainly not a film for the squeamish as we see eyeballs drilled into, intestines ripped out and gallons of blood sloshing around. However, fans of Nishimura’s work will find a lot to enjoy in the inventive, over-the-top action sequences and no-holds-barred gruesomeness. It is a genre Nishimura has worked in for a long while and it shows. He has perfected many of the special effects techniques and this stands as perhaps the finest example of his work. There is a clear line from this to Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” in the transformed human-machine hybrids, and late in the film there seems to be a direct homage in a sequence in which we see a character running down the street.

The direction is good with lots of hand-held camera work giving a chaotic sense to the action. There are lots of subtle moments, call-backs and visual gags in the film too for those paying attention.

The central premise of the film comes at the end when we discover the reason for the alien invasion and all the mayhem that has ensued. Right before the film ends we also see some brief flashes of documentary footage, animals in slaughterhouses and battery-farmed eggs, alongside pictures of large congregations of people in city streets. It finishes with the single ironic word “humans”. However horrific things are in the film, it seems to say, humans are responsible for killing, slaughter and devastation on a far bigger scale. This is fiction, the fantastical nature of death and gore and violence here is as nothing to the true horror of humanities own destructive urges. Fans of Nishimura are sure to love this film as it is everything you could hope for from a splatter horror comedy.

Meatball Machine (2005) by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto

Yoji Muranishi (Issei Takahashi) works as a machinist in a factory. Cutting something of a lonely figure, he spends his lunchbreak looking over the fence from the factor at a woman, Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), who lives next to the factory, and spends time with his friend Doi. Something strange is going on in the city, with a mysterious creature appearing from the river and killing a young boy before transforming him into a grotesque conglomeration of metal, flesh and tentacles. A parasitical alien is taking over humans and turning them into necroborgs, forcing them to fight, with the victor devouring the weaker combatants. When Muranishi stumbles across Sachiko being sexually assaulted by his boss he steps in to help and the two head back to his house. Sachiko is taken over by one of the aliens and becomes a mass of metal. Muranishi is told by a man familiar with these beings that his best hope of saving her is to kill her. Muranishi heads out to attempt to rescue the woman he loves while escaping the same fate himself.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto “Meatball Machine” is a splatter horror comedy that revels in disgusting and extreme imagery. The special effects work by Yoshihiro Nishimura is incredible and there are some truly stomach-churning creations. In particular the design of the creatures that infest the humans will thrill anyone who is into body-horror, somewhere between a tumour and hideous embryonic predator. Despite having no identifiable human features, these beings are completely understandable. One of the film’s strengths is that the explanations for what is happening are largely left unsaid until later in the movie, yet from the first instance of a human being taken over, and the sight of this small parasitical entity, it is entirely clear.

The plot is almost a twisted love story buried beneath a flood of science-fiction and horror elements. The central thread is Muranishi’s quest for Sachiko, but it proves to be a thin line on which to hang the talents and creativity of the special effects department. The directors show a firm knowledge of horror and do a great job at creating atmosphere, with off-kilter camera angles and strobe lighting effects. The majority of the film is shot in a muddy half-light, with the greys and browns of the industrial district emphasising a feel of decay, both economic and social. It doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier side of the city, with trash, weeds, iron railings and unappealing architecture.

It seems like the kind of film that the filmmakers had a lot of fun making and there are many moments that will raise a smile despite the horrific imagery. These include one of the necroborgs having a windscreen wiper to clear off blood after he has savagely dispatched a rival; and even the parasitical creatures in their fleshy command-stations have a definite comedic tone once the initial revulsion has passed. Worth a watch for fans of the bizarre and grotesque, “Meatball Machine” hangs by the slenderest of plot threads but fills its runtime with creative and excessive moments.