20 years ago in Japan, we had the hallucinatory masterpiece that is Shinya Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" - truly a work of art comparable to "Eraserhead." In 2001, we had the likes of Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer" to keep pushing the boundaries of Japanese extreme cinema. Flashforward to modern times and, uh, it seems like something has gone horribly wrong.
Somewhere along the way I think these "shock movies" became more popular in America than they did in Japan and movie producers over there realized they could recoup an investment very easily as long as they targeted Western gorehounds and perverts. How else can you explain the transition from Shinya Tsukamoto to the likes of "Machine Girl" and "Tokyo Gore Police"?
Sure, they might have their moments but something has been lost in translation. There's no context or meaning behind the depravity onscreen, just a string of increasingly horrific images designed to appeal to cinema-goers' most base desires. Which is, apparently, mutated girl sex and dicks being sliced off.
Sorry, pal, that's what you get for wearing a gaudy red and green track suit
Out of this crop of current direct-to-DVD splatter flicks comes "Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle," which is actually…pretty good. Damn, looks like I just contradicted myself. Fortunately, I can explain. See, "Hard Revenge, Milly" is essentially two films that come on one disc. The first feature, titled "Hard Revenge, Milly," is only about 45 minutes long - and it's bad. In fact, it manages to illustrate everything that I find distasteful about Japanese shock cinema right now. The second film, "Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle," is significantly longer and improves on the first installment in every way possible.
Yup, this guy is still firing a gun even after his head has been sliced off
"Hard Revenge, Milly" is set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, a setting not unlike the "Mad Max" films. Milly was a good woman with a husband and child, until a roving band of sadistic thugs brutally murdered her family before her very eyes. She was left for dead herself but ultimately rebuilt by scientists, who outfitted her with cybernetic weapons. Now a shell of the woman she used to be, she roves the wastelands of Japan in search of the maniacs who stole her life. Her only purpose in life, revenge.
It's a predictable set-up but a satisfying one. Who doesn't love a good revenge story, as played out as these things tend to be in our post-"Kill Bill" world? We still like to see bad guys get their comeuppance. The problem is, the first movie gives you no sense of scope for what's happening onscreen. There's absolutely no world-building done; we don't feel like Milly is roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape so much as she is moving from one abandoned building to another, engaging in bloody fights with random Japanese punks.
One of the gory kills is actually repeated in its entirety twice, before and after the credits, a sure sign that your movie is scrambling for content. By the end, no matter how spectacularly graphic things get you can't help but feel like what you're watching is violence for the sake of violence.
That's why the sequel, "Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle" works. It provides context for everything. An increase in production values means that we actually get to see more of the post-apocalyptic world any how it as affected society. Suddenly, the homicidal thugs are not just random killers but a new breed of criminal that has begun to pocket the landscape. We see how society has broken down in the wake of nuclear armageddon but also how the last vestiges of humanity are surviving.
All the violence and depravity makes sense because we see a reason behind it: the world has changed. Moral codes don't mean much when everything is about survival - and if you're insane enough, it's all about getting your kicks, even if that means randomly sodomizing members of your own gang or lighting babies on fire.
In "Bloody Battle," the kills are more outlandish and creative - I'll try not to spoil any - but feel warranted, as Milly is constantly fighting for her life. This was also the first time that I bought Milly as a bad-ass warrior who was capable of surviving in a ruined future; she no longer seemed like a former soccer mom with an asymmetrical haircut, but a well-trained killing machine.
And with an increased runtime there also comes more room for character development. We meet the eccentric doctor who is tasked with keeping Milly's internal machinery running. The interesting wrinkle that Milly's mind may not even be her own is tossed out there. Is her bloody quest for the revenge merely the product of someone else's memories? Perhaps she's left a pile of her corpses in her wake for nothing.
The villain in "Bloody Battle" is also a hell out of a lot more fun than any character in the first movie. Okay, I'm sure there are a lot of people who'd call him an offense gay stereotype but…you've got to have a sense of humor about these DTV flicks. Besides, this dude is not in the closet at all: he loves the gay lifestyle and he mourns the loss of Jack (the guy Milly spectacularly killed at the end of her first outing), who claims was the "sexiest" and "most violent" man he ever knew.
This guy frequently steals the show with his one-liners espousing the virtues of the gay lifestyle. At one point he catches one of his henchman trying to rape a tied up female prisoner and he literally smashes the guy's face into a wall and then remarks, "That's why I hate bisexuals."
For sheer gory outlandishness, I don't know if anyone will be able to top the scene in "Machine Girl" where a Yakuza wife makes a sushi chef eat his own severed fingers as sushi rolls…but that's just it: that's really the only thing I remember from "Machine Girl." It was an otherwise forgettable exercise in gratuitousness. "Hard Revenge, Milly" proves that the only way this particular subgenre Japanese cinema is gonna last - and believe me it's proven to be quite popular, with the producers AND directors behind "Tokyo Gore Police" all having projects on the way - is by tempering its shock value with actual evidence of filmmaking skill.
In "Bloody Battle," director Takanori Tsujimoto shows that he has a flair for directing action sequences; he deftly balances scenes of Milly cutting down henchmen like cannon fodder with more elaborate and choreographed battles against skilled opponents. At the same time he proves that with a decent budget he's able of creating a believable cinematic world so that the violence has context and (relative) meaning. I look forward to seeing where he does in the future, with the hopes that he won't devolve into the deviant parody of "Tokyo Gore Police."
If it seems like I'm particularly hard on the makers of Japanese extreme cinema, it's because I like them a lot and, frankly, I expect more from them than their American contemporaries. The legacy of gonzo Japanese flicks from the past 20 years are part of the reason I became obsessed with movies in the first place.
The problem is, "Versus" came out in 2000 and "Ichi the Killer" came out in 2001 - and we're STILL witnessing the outright theft of shots and motifs from both those movies. I want to see a Japanese splatter flick that stimulates more than just the viewer's gag reflex. Fortunately, "Milly"'s hard-edged portrayal of the apocalypse is a step in the right direction.
Something about all this...
feels a bit too familiar
POST-NOTE: Now that I've realized just how easy it is to make screen grabs of Instant and DVD flicks, expect the blog to become much improved. To that effect, I went back to reviews of "China Heat," "The Octagon," and "D.C. Cab" and added my own screen captures. There will be more to come. Thanks for reading!