Romance Doll (2020) by Yuki Tanada

Art graduate Tetsuo (Issei Takahashi) turns up at a warehouse on the recommendation of a friend. He soon discovers the job he has been set-up with is designing and manufacturing sex dolls along with senior designer Kinji (Kitaro), nicknamed Kin-Kin. He sets about his task diligently, but his first creation is deemed inadequate by their boss as it is too unrealistic. Kinji comes up with a plan: they will advertise for a female breast model by pretending that they are making prostheses for medical use. When Sonoko (Yu Aoi) turns up to model, Tetsuo falls in love with her and the two are soon married. Tetsuo finds he is unable to tell her about his real profession and Sonoko has a difficult secret of her own to share with him.

Writer and director Yuki Tanada has worked on a number of romantic comedy films and her familiarity with the genre shines through in this well-balanced relationship drama. “Romance Doll” is paced perfectly and uses gentle humour to introduce the characters. It eschews crude gags but the early scenes as Tetsuo is introduced to his new job are entertaining in the casual way they treat the subject matter of love dolls and the respect Kin-Kin has for his work, seeing his role as something akin to a sculptor of great art. The relationship between Tetsuo and Sonoko is tender and relatable, both uneasy at first and likeable but not without their flaws. Issei Takahashi as Tetsuo begins as an archetypical awkward young singleton, but develops into a more rounded character through his relationship with Sonoko. Yu Aoi (who also featured in Tanada’s “One Million Yen Girl”) delivers an incredible performance, hugely charismatic and  capturing both the strength and fragility of the character. The supporting cast all do an excellent job, but the film keeps a firm focus on the two leads. The direction is great throughout, with excellent use of framing and blocking, particularly in the scenes between Tetsuo and Sonoko. The dinner table is almost transformed into an interrogation room as their relationship hits several bumps in the road. There are also carefully considered cutaways that say a lot very succinctly. One such example is the still shot of two coffee cups, still part full, resting on the table following an argument, that perfectly encapsulates a sense of things left unsaid and the comfortable fantasy of the perfect relationship being brought to a sudden halt.

In many ways a straightforward tragic-romance plot, the inclusion of Tetsuo’s peculiar line of work helps give the film a quite unique feel. Alongside themes of relationship troubles, honesty and questions of fidelity, there is also an important idea brought to the fore. That of the distinction and relationship between sex and love. The film rarely sexualises Tetsuo’s work and the dolls are only ever seen as objects, quite distinct from Sonoko who displays a warmth and tenderness. As the title suggests, the idea of a “love doll” (as they are called in the film), or more accurately a “sex doll” would be quite distinct from a “Romance Doll”, which suggests a deeper connection and one that is born of struggle and genuine understanding for another person. The film is well made and brings out incredible performances from the two leads. It’s gentle blend of humour, romantic drama, and philosophizing on the nature of love make it a hugely enjoyable watch.

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.