It's another trip into the freakish world of Japanese cyberpunk geek show horror, and Judge Bill Gibron couldn't be happier—for the most part.
Cyberpunk or Cyperpuke?
Yoji is a young, lonely factory drone, unable to relate to his shallow, sex-obsessed coworkers. During his lunch hours, he sits by the riverbanks of his company town and eats his meals by himself. One day, he sees Sachiko, an equally forlorn gal from across the way. Smitten in ways only he can understand, Yoji turns inward and introverted. While visiting a porn theater, he is accosted by a transvestite. Waking up in a pile of rubbish, he comes across something that looks like an interstellar insect. He stashes it in his closet and forgets about it. The next night, he spies Sachiko with one of the lamentable lotharios from his job. During an attempted rape, Yoji steps in to save her. Seeing him beaten once again, his new gal pal feels sorry for him. Back at his apartment, she explains her sad lot in life, and Yoji acts poorly. Before she can leave, the unknown object attacks her, turning her into a bio-mechanical monster. It appears that Yoji has stumbled upon an alien pod, a device that allows a gang of parasitic spacemen to take over human bodies and modify them into battle-ready weapons. Soon, Yoji is one as well and, as he confronts his one-time imaginary love, she uses her superior firepower to try and dissuade him. He doesn't take "no" for an answer. But these Meatball Machines better look out. A devastated father is out to kill all these creatures. But his motives are not quite as pure as one imagines.
It remains a metaphor almost unique to the Japanese genre film. Be it love, sex, or any other kind of emotional issue, the cultural confusion over how to both express and repress said feeling somehow translates into concepts monstrous, futuristic, and foul. From the original cyberpunk splatter fest Tetsuo: The Iron Man to the recent Meatball Machine, human interaction and its potential embarrassments become the unusual foundation for gore-drenched splatter fests where body parts are contorted and destroyed in the name of saving face and protecting honor. When one goes back and looks over the plotline for this slightly screwy bloodbath, the logistics are fairly simple. A lonely guy wants to hook up with equally lonely gal. When they finally do, they end up as part of some weird alien competition that's part Battle Royale, part human Robot Jox. The main thread running through the Earth-bound story is the link between desire and destruction, how longing and wanting can keep you from being yourself, and destroy you once you give in to its urges. On the other hand, the extraterrestrial element is like a video game testing focus group gone goofy. The last-act denouement sounds like a couple of the instructors over at DeVry reacting to bad marketing data. In between, there's nothing but battles and blood.
This makes Meatball Machine a difficult movie to defend. In essence, it's a resume reel for a pair of proficient directors (Yudai,Yamaguchi, Jun'ichi Yamamoto) and a very capable F/X artist (Yoshihiro Nishimura). The acting is acceptable, though less resonant than the excess of space splatter, and the narrative has a silent movie dynamic that presents a more superficial than substantive atmosphere. Indeed, once the creature chaos begins, you might find yourself grabbing for the fast-forward button on your remote. Lacking the kind of kinetic invention to support a 30-minute fisticuff finale, Meatball Machine gives it a damn good try. Granted, we never do quite figure out how the whole alien infestation/bodily mutation element works, and some of the stunts are merely offered for potential shock value. But there is also a layer of underlying sadness here, as two potential paramours end up locked in a gut-gouging war to the death. It is clear that Yamaguchi and Yamamoto (the former a creator of the delightful Battlefield Baseball) are pulling out all the video violence stops. We get amputations and decapitations, eye drilling and body bisecting. When the spacemen take over, their corpse grinding is highly reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing, and the disturbing designs lift elements wholesale from Tetsuo.
Yet there is still something not quite right about this entire enterprise—and no fair pointing out that it's a movie about a couple of bio-mechanical "hosts" being utilized by enterprising ETs to wage war in. Sure, it sticks close to the Japanese comic art form known as manga (there are shots that could be direct panel lifts) and borrows liberally from such traditional genres as the samurai and yakuza motion picture category. But the attempted juxtaposition of love story and slaughter spectacle is tentative at best, and the action can grow incredibly repetitive. Even worse, the most intriguing element in the tale—a weird subplot involving a man who kills these creatures for the "benefit" of his daughter is never fully explored (luckily, the DVD addresses this). Still, for anyone enamored of the groovy grue of Rikki-O or the more concentrated slice-and-dice dynamic in J-Horror, Meatball Machine will definitely satisfy your itch for ick. If you go in expecting too much, however, or want all of this to make solid sense, your expectations will extinguish your potential enjoyment. Simply sit back and go with the freak show flow. Meatball Machine is like an exploitation visit to a robot's morgue.
Thanks to those fine folks over at TLA Releasing and their Danger After Dark brand, Meatball Machine gets a wonderful DVD release. The 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image is expertly controlled, delivering a high level of visual vibrance to what was obviously a low-budget effort. The colors in particular are wonderfully evocative. Even the stage blood looks all too real. On the sound side, we are presented with a nicely modulated Japanese language track (with easily legible English subtitles) that never goes overboard. In fact, the Dolby Digital Stereo is solid throughout. But perhaps the best aspect of this release is the wonderful wealth of added content. First up is a near definitive making-of featurette. Clocking in at more than a half hour, we hear from cast and crew about what intrigued them about this project. It's amazingly informative. Next up is the original Meatball Madness short—a 10-minute Super VHS homemade horror film that faithfully follows it's eventual big-screen brethren. Next up is a nice slide show of the anime-style artwork that went into the creation of the character's cybersuits. The images are beautiful in the brazen grotesqueries. Finally, we are treated to another short, labeled "Reject or Death," this time filling in the backstory surrounding the infected young girl and her obsessive father. It's as good—and in some respects, much better—than the main movie.
If you're not into geek-show epics, if you could care less about half human/half shock show battle bots running around the countryside carving each other up in a blood-soaked bounty, then do yourself a favor and avoid Meatball Machine. But if you enjoy saying yes to another Asian atrocity excess, by all means, suit up. The offal is about to fly!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• "Reject or Death" -- Short
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