Friday, May 21, 2010

Dope Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura (part 1)

Subway Cinema's announcements for this year's NYAFF are rolling in, and w/ the excellent news of the inclusion of Mutant Girls Squad, the madcap collaboration b/w directors Yoshihiro Nishimura, Noboru Iguchi and Tak Sakaguchi — apparently conceived over one very drunken night in NYC at last year's festival, though I could see such a collaboration as fated, in the stars — it is my duty to inform on the absolute dopeness of these directors and this fascinatingly violent underworld of extreme Japanese cinema.
There is a renowned, or notorious, contingent of directors called "The Splat Pack", including Eli Roth and James Wan, who, since 2002, have embodied this hellishly violent torture-porn movement where an MPAA 'R' rating is like the low end of the spectrum. I marginally compare this w/ New French Extremity, which is more blurredly demarcated and contains such transgressive (yet, in many instances, critically acclaimed) features as Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-moi and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs, though the greater sweep of this movement (and its other European peers), unlike "The Splat Pack" is broader than 'just' torture-porn.
So trust me when I write that there's a global market for extreme films (just check the power of Tom Six's The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — that such a feature could even exist in certain mainstream circulation, let alone the multiple sequels to Saw and Hostel, is evidence in itself). And Nishimura's oeuvre is decidedly extremely violent, but it's totally NOT torture-porn. His features don't have the elaborate budgets of "The Splat Pack", nor, I believe, would he go the torture-porn, super-realist route if he had the budget. Let me break this down for you: Nishimura's oeuvre is body-shock horror (splatterpunk a la David Cronenberg), laced w/ requisite Japanese motifs (the schoolgirl, the samurai), and it's incredibly dope. Stay with me on this!

My first exposure to Nishimura was Tokyo Gore Police (his first solo feature film after a string of collaborations, including w/ Iguchi and Sakaguchi, where Nishimura added SFX — geysers of blood and gore — to their respective films), which screened at the 2008 NYAFF. Oh it looked fierce, I mean "gore" is its middle name! (actually, the title, 東京残酷警察, directly translates to something like "Tokyo Brutality Police", which is incredibly effective for the angle of the film, but of that later) More precisely, I saw an extended trailer of Tokyo Gore Police on Twitch ahead of the festival. That he'd picked Eihi Shiina (notoriously of Takashi Miike's Audition, which remains one of the scariest films I've ever seen, and undoubtedly ever will see) as the lead for Tokyo Gore Police was reason enough to hook my attention. Her onscreen presence as Asami in Audition was so singular, so...lasting, well, I wondered what she would be like in another film, and if she could effectively dispel that Asami aura. The Tokyo Gore Police trailer opened that door.
Slow-building industrial techno soundtrack. Shots of Shiina (as character Ruka) driving a modded squad car through neon-drenched new-future Tokyo's streets at night, cut w/ shots of gore straight out of Return of the Living Dead. Then came the blood. The appearance of blood in Nishimura's world is signature and greatly contributes to this unrealism. Blood looks like diluted cherry sno-cone syrup, and when it comes it geysers, showers, spurts in all directions like an open fireplug in summertime. The camera-lens on the trailer was soaked in this blood spraying from either a woman's or a long-haired man's (I couldn't place the gender in this non-sequential shot) head. A bondage club scene, replete w/ rubber-suited characters and grotesquely modified girls. Then Ruka in some sort of modified kimono (as in, super-short) in a swordfight with a black-cloaked man, perfectly in synch w/ the soundtrack. Then a car-crash through a pile of cadaver limbs, again a brilliant knock to the realism quotient while echoing '80s zombie films. Then the title screen — Tokyo Gore Police — and I'm left wondering 'what in the hell just happened?'. It was obviously ultraviolent, but in an almost comedically extreme way, like live-action "Itchy and Scratchy" only more-so and more Japanese. Like the director wasn't even trying to get near the ballpark of believability. But what kind of story could rest on such a coked-up splatter film? Like I wrote before: I was hooked. I had to see it.
I doubt I was the only one at the IFC Center that night who was surprised that Nishimura created not only a solvent plot but also a rather emotive back-story for Tokyo Gore Police. Shiina's character, Ruka, the lead "Engineer Hunter" (these twisted, bloodthirsty, genetically-modified humans) was a self-harmer, a cutter. Her family life, shown in flashback, seemed to be both loving and painful, as her mother tried to commit suicide on Ruka's birthday. Her father, a clean-cut Keisuke Horibe (who I knew for his thuggish, misfit roles in Katsuhito Ishii's Sharkskin Man and Peach-Hip Girl and Party 7), was a police officer, Ruka's role model and an upstanding figure for civic duty. He was murdered in front of Ruka's eyes — which we later learn was like a double-cross — and that propelled her to join the police force. By this point, the Tokyo Police Force is like this all-invasive Shogun-slash-SWAT brigade, supposedly protecting the citizens from the onset of these "engineers", who were apparently behind Ruka's father's murder. And w/ the impetus for Ruka joining the force, Nishimura cuts loose.

The first few minutes of Tokyo Gore Police are major-intense for first-timers to this particular realm of extremism. The unhinged juxtaposition of Ruka, sitting in her squad car and slashing her wrist, against shots of this snarling violent tumbleweed (amazingly cameo'd by Tak Sakaguchi), wielding a gore-soaked chainsaw in sped-up animation, is enough to separate the hardcore from the not. And that's not to say Nishimura makes it any easier on us once the action settles down (no way, many of his gems, like the exploding head, leg-geysers, and acidic breast-milk, show up in this film). But trust me, once the balletic choreographed action b/w Ruka and this crazed engineer begins (courtesy of action/stunt guru Sakaguchi), particularly the point where the engineer grows a meat-and-bone chainsaw from a truncated limb (like the combination nightmare of early William Gibson w/ Darren Lynn Bousman) and the two go at it in a full-on chainsaw fight — like 10 minutes into the film, a chainsaw fight!! — then we're cruising. And then Ruka wields TWO chainsaws, re-appropriating the engineer's fashioned limb, carving the baddie up ice-sculpture style in slo-mo, blood splashing in all directions as the music crescendos and she strikes a pose.
The world of "Tokyo Gore Police" dwells mostly at night, in a Chiba City-like neon Tokyo, captured by Nishimura's saturated-color lens. And besides the closet-sized bar, where Ruka confides w/ her fast-friend bartender, played by Ikuko Sawada, most of its locations are discomfiting alien. Police HQ resembles an empty parking garage, the setting for Ruka's surreal birthday party, surrounded by the hulking, armored chief (Shun Sugata, rasping through a speaker on his throat to offset his character's ruined larynx), the grotesque "Igor"-like medical examiner (Jiji Bu, a fixture in Nishimura's world), and a bunch of salacious-looking dudes (who I'll bet wouldn't dare lay a finger on Ruka, knowing her penchant for swift retribution). The only other woman in this motley group is the Chief's "pet gimp",  (pole dancer and frequent collab Cay Izumi, who's a tengu in Iguchi's Robogeisha), rubber-masked and -suited and plodding along on her limbless stubs, until the Chief removes her mask so we see her prismatic hair and pierced tongue before she begins pleasuring him. The gimp takes on Ruka in a wild fight-scene near the end, again thanks to Sakaguchi, where she's outfitted w/ katanas for limbs and coked up on stimulants, careening off the concrete walls and pirouetting at Ruka like a kinetic Ray Caesar creation. Sakaguchi also contributed the swordplay scene b/w Ruka (bedecked in the modded kimono, which while benefiting her flat stomach and long leg, and looking generally badass, tripped me up as an odd uniform choice, but, hell, she worked it) and the Key Man, the black-cloaked dude and head engineer in the trailer.

Nishimura punctuates this gore rollercoaster with commercials, adding a bit of bright, twisted levity to the stew. And yeah, they're gory, too (one is a 'wrist-cut kit' for high-school girls, another cautions against seppuku, directed by Noguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi). These plus the soprano-cooings of Marie Machida, the DJ/police correspondent (I'm still not quite sure, but her HQ seems to be the bondage club) further this darkly humorous atmosphere. And we have Nishimura entirely to thank for the heady trip down the S&M rabbit hole, the bondage club doubling as an engineer base, where particularly lecherous officer Yukihide Benny (omnipresent in basically all Nishimura/Noguchi films) frequents. Kariwanz, aka Ms Karin and her "dog" partner Wanco, created the eye-popping, hazardware-colored fetishwear for the club (plus the outfit and mask for "dog girl"). Here we meet the three performers (actually Key Man's henchwomen), all young Japanese actresses and recurring Nishimura characters: Cherry Kirishima ("snail girl"), Sayako Nakoshi ("penis nose"? her face is reshuffled w/ an eye for a mouth and vice-versa, plus the penis-nose. She reappears prominently as a "wrist-cutting" champion in Nishimura's other films, sans penis nose, of course), and the lovely Tsugumi Nagasawa ("teeth-breasts", think of The Corinthian from Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman", but fang-laden breasts instead of eyes). The sex-addled cop picks Nagasawa, and after a bit of fellatio and gunfire — and in perhaps the most iconic moment of the film, if I had to pick one — her lower half morphs into crocodile jaws, a Venus Flytrap-like vaginal dentata, sicced on Tanaka's manhood and other limbs. It's to Nishimura's credit that, despite the budget, this incredibly unlikely morphing actually looks pretty know, in a completely wacked-out sort of way. And when it's all over, the city burning just like the poster claims, w/ the Key Man taken down and the corrupted police force in shambles, our heroine Ruka emerges alongside her new recruit, the "dog girl" now with machineguns for limbs, and I became a devoted Nishimura fanatic.

(Nishimura-san PART TWO — on Vampire Girl v. Frankenstein Girl and more — coming soon!)