Barbican Film: Japanese Halloween Schlockfest Double Bill

Why is Japanese cinema loved on a world wide scale? The simple answer is because it dares to tread the ground that mainstream, westernised film will not. Whilst movies like Scream (1996) and Saw (2004) attempt to display the motives and reasons behind inhumane, bloodthirsty violence, J-Horror makes no such excuses and even attempts to portray such sadism and brutality humorously.

That style is the very foundation of its success, as cult audiences on a global scale are drawn to the bold and abrasive special effects used and the raw intensity that the films achieve as a result. J-Horror makes no apologies for its brash, exploitative style, and it is this approach that has lead many commentators to associate it with the true grindhouse cinema of the 1970s and 80s.

It is the unashamed manner in which Japanese ‘schlock horror’ deals with the darker side of human existence that excites us and it is for those very reasons that the evening of festivities, hosted by Jasper Sharp (Co-editor of Midnight Eye – the premier resource on Japanese cinema in the English language) at the Barbican Centre last month was a total sell out. The level of enthusiasm for the event and its Japanese schlock horror films was unbelievably infectious and unlike the stuffy, uptight atmosphere we come to expect from the cinema today – It felt like a cult experience in the truest sense.

The first film of the evening, and arguably the most anticipated of the two films, was Noboru Iguchi’s RoboGeisha (2009) and it did not fail to electrify the audience with its “boob machine guns”, “butt swords”, “wig napalm” and most humorous of all giant “castle robot”. RoboGeisha pulls out all of the stops, and does not let a little thing like believability get in its way; in fact it is so absurd that one can really not discuss it within the realms of normality – it must be considered within a wholly different context, where geisha’s have a warrior instinct and fight with swords poking out their rear ends! As a result RoboGeisha really is visually pleasurable and viscously humorous throughout.

Its plot is simple: two rich men (father and son) hell bent on the ultimate destruction of Japan set out to develop an army of cyborgs using young and beautiful Japanese girls. These girls are lured to the men and then given the choice of fighting for their life in battle or the option of being killed – a theme common to Japanese cinema (e.g. Battle Royale [2000]). From here on the girls and their bodies are transformed into fighting machines with the application of bizarre and hilarious weaponry that brings with it a whole new meaning to women’s accessorising – you really have to see it to believe it. The combination of eccentric weapons and the traditional Japanese geisha made the battle scenes side-splittingly hilarious and allowed us to ignore the death and mutilation by passing it all off as comedic.

The second feature film of the evening was Takao Nakano’s Big Tits Zombie 3D (2010), a filmic adaptation of Rei Mikamoto’s cult manga Kyonyu Dragon. It was clear immediately that Nakano’s film had a much lower budget than RoboGeisha but it still managed to get some laughs and stir up some real excitement in the audience with audacious scenes of zombification that included a hilarious moment involving flame-throwing genitalia, and the eroticised battle scenes between strippers and the walking dead. Whilst Big Tits Zombie 3D had the usual moments of comical fighting and kills typical of Japanese schlock horror, comparatively it did not have the same force packed by RoboGeisha. If it had been viewed aside from RoboGeisha the audience would have surely responded more excitedly. Regardless, if you like Japanese horror films that make light-hearted and humorous work of brutality, mutilation, and death then this will make for a fun watch.

Augmented City 3D from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

A brief mention should be made of Keiichi Matsuda’s Augmented City 3D (2010), as the film received its world premiere between BTZ and RoboGeisha. As a short it really didn’t make much impact upon the audience, but its concepts were very interesting nonetheless. Augmented City 3D is an exploration of the synthetic spaces that are becoming ever present in the modern day world – it provides us with a vision of the future where that space has become more apparent and recognisable. The concept is fantastic and visually it is  extremely sophisticated and intricate.

Overall, the whole evening and event was fantastic, with a great atmosphere that helped to reinforce the hilarity of the films on display. The audiences’ alcohol and fun fuelled participation gave it that feeling of a real cult event akin to what one could expect from an old-school “grindhouse” event. Both films cleverly juxtapose the simplicity of traditional Japanese life with the chaos of the modern world, reminding us in a time of gadgetry of the ultimate consequences we may face as the world becomes more and more technologically advanced.

However, the overwhelmingly outlandish ideas portrayed by both films far outweigh any social commentary their respective directors may have been attempting to convey. Put it this way, if you want some unashamed, explicit fun look no further than a night in with some friends and some “quality” Japanese schlock horror. Iguchi’s RoboGeisha is a must see for all lovers of gore infested horror films, and will also make good viewing for those who just enjoy a bit of fun at the movies. Contrastingly, Nakano’s Big Tits Zombie 3D is geared solely to the die-hard schlock horror fan. Give them both a shot – fun is guaranteed. 

Russell Cook