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Friday, July 22, 2011
Cult film fest is a typhoon of blood, guts and chuckles
What Japanese and overseas audiences want from Japanese films is often quite different. Many mega blockbusters here, from smirky cop thrillers to lachrymose medical melodramas, go unseen outside Asia, while quirky/gory indie films that barely open in Japan become foreign festival favorites with their directors hailed by critics abroad as unappreciated geniuses (until they make their first commercial hit, when those same critics suddenly decide they are washed-up sell-outs).
Cleverly catering to Western "Asian Extreme" film fans is Sushi Typhoon, a line of exploitation films conceived and supervised by veteran producer Yoshinori Chiba, whose credits include "Gokudō Sengokushi: Fudō" ("Fudoh: The New Generation," 1996), the gleefully sadistic gangster romp that was "king of cult" Takashi Miike's international break-through.
The seven Sushi Typhoon films to date, starting with "Sentō Shōjo: Chi no Tekkamen Densetsu" ("Mutant Girls Squad") in 2010, are by various directors, but share a certain Miike-esque disregard for local cinematic conventions and politically correct values. Blood and body parts are splattered about with cheeky abandon, while standard-issue realism and emotionalism are tossed out the window. But unlike Miike, who seriously tried to shock, Sushi Typhoon auteurs tend to be genre parodists whose films are best enjoyed as comedies. They put air quotes around the gore.
After mostly rapturous (or rather raucous) receptions at foreign festivals, four Sushi Typhoon films have come home, so to speak, opening at the Ginza Cine Pathos theater on July 23.
Epitomizing the Sushi Typhoon approach, for better and worse, is "Nihon Bundan: Heru Doraibā" ("Helldriver") by effects-specialist-turned-director Yoshihiro Nishimura. This over-the-top genre pastiche about a zombie outbreak in northern Japan, opposed by a high school girl (Yumiko Hara) armed with a chainsaw-cum-sword and her ragtag crew, starts off with an explosion of eye-popping bizarreness, including a meteor that rips through the heroine's psychotic killer mother (Eihi Shiina). It then spends the next hour trying to top itself, like a party skit that declines from gloriously insane to embarrassingly tiresome. It looks as though Nishimura and his gang had a fun time dreaming up weird, wacky business; so much fun, in fact, that little details like character development and narrative arc went missing.
More coherent, if equally rambunctious, is "Gokudō Heiki" ("Yakuza Weapon"), Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi's comic actioner, based on a manga by Ken Ishikawa. Sakaguchi doubles as the hero, a gangster-turned-mercenary who sneers at bullets and laughs at land mines on a Southeast Asian battlefield. The story's motivational mainspring is that genre staple: righteous revenge, with the outlaw superhero returning to Japan and going on a rampage against his gang-boss father's slithery killer (Shingo Tsurumi) and his minions. It ends with his severe wounding — and emergency surgery that leaves him with a cannon in his arm and a rocket launcher in his knee.
From here the outlandish action is nearly nonstop, but grounded in Sakaguchi's formidable martial-arts skills and propelled by his all-out performance as the ultimate yakuza bad ass, snarling defiance even after taking blows that would crumple a tank.
Seiji Chiba's "Alien vs. Ninja" promises similarly titanic clashes in its title and does not disappoint, though the chills of the "Alien" series, particularly the 1979 Ridley Scott horror-in-space classic that started it all, are nowhere to be found. Instead the emphasis is on martial arts dustups, inventively (if cheaply) staged by action director Yuji Shimomura.
Our ninja heroes, including one kick-ass beauty (Mika Hiji), are interrupted in their fighting chores by a fireball in the sky: an alien spacecraft come to earth. Investigating, they are set upon by the reptilian crew, who thrash them with an ease that strikes the hitherto unbeatable heroes as incredible. Being ninja, they are quick to come back against these monsters, though they are baffled by the pinkish alien implants that turn their fallen comrades into battling zombies.
What saves the film from fatal silliness are Shimomura's swords-versus-alien-slime set-pieces, which have a panache and precision that lift them above the genre (and certainly the Sushi Typhoon) standard.
The newest Sushi Typhoon entry on the program, Yudai Yamaguchi's "Deddobōru" ("Dead Ball)" is a followup to his 2003 splatter comedy "Jigoku Kōshien" ("Battlefield Baseball"). If you have fond memories of that film's various idiocies (the all-zombie rival team, the limbs strewn on the infield) this one will not disappoint, though gags that might have once seemed outrageous, now look, through much repetition in the Sushi Typhoon films and elsewhere, familiar, if hardly tame.
The indefatigable Tak Sakaguchi once again stars, this time as a teen delinquent gifted with a deadly pitching arm, who after killing his father with a fireball delivered from somewhere in the stratosphere, vows to never play the game again. He is forced to change his mind, however, when he is sent to Japan's worst reformatory and its neo-Nazi female principal threatens to kill his doe-eyed cellmate (Mari Hoshino).
Soon the hero and his team are facing the game of their lives — or rather for their lives — with the hot and hellacious girls from St. Black Dahlia High School, who play for keeps.
Unlike most of his Sushi Typhoon colleagues, who believe they are delivering coolness with every frame, Yamaguchi gives the audience the occasional wink at the absurdity of the proceedings, in the manner of generations of Japanese dotabata (knock-about) comics.
Does this mean the Sushi Typhoon gag is already getting old? So far Chiba and company have come up with enough variations on their wilder-the-better formula to keep their target foreign fans coming back for more. And Sushi Typhoon films, especially when seen in the right setting (a midnight festival screening with everyone in a party-down mood), can be fun in ways Hollywood and much of the Japanese film industry have long since forgotten. But four in a row stone cold sober? Don't think so, dude.