DIRECTED BY: Yûdai Yamaguchi and Jun’ichi Yamamoto
FEATURING: Issei Takahashi, Aoba Kawai
PLOT: Alien parasites infect human hosts, morphing their bodies into bio-combat machines who then fight each other to the death; shy factory worker Yôji and Sachiko, the lonely girl he fancies, soon find themselves caught up in the struggle.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Meatball Machine‘s alien gladiator-parasite setup is bizarre, but the movie never really tries to top its strangeness. Rather, the weirdness pretty much stops at the premise, as the producers instead spend their energy indulging their true loves: gore and special effects. The result is a movie that’s well within the weird genre, but not an outstanding example of it. (NOTE: upon further reflection, Meatball Machine was upgraded to “Borderline Weird” on 7/5/2010).
COMMENTS: To say that Meatball Machine‘s storyline is thin would be an insult to the relatively dense scripts of Michael Bay. In fact, the entire last half hour of the movie is nothing but an extended melee that persists long after the dual directors have run out of combat hooks. To keep us emotionally involved in between (and during) the fight scenes, the plot takes a perfunctory stab at a touching love story between two losers; viewers will have to buy into this romance on their own, as neither the script nor the actors sell it. But though Meatball Machine might be light on depth, what the movie does have going for it is unforgettable costume design and a few endearing oddnesses; and, of course, buckets of gore, for those who consider that a plus. The alien parasites who populate this film thrive by inserting themselves inside humans and mutating the host body to create an ever-evolving arsenal of extremely implausible organic weapons, among which are biochainsaws, bioflamethrowers, and, for the necroborg who has everything, a visor complete with a windshield wiper to keep blood from splashing into his new issue, lead-soldered eyes. The aliens also create bulky exoskeletons festooned with tubing and spikes, which make them look like members of a Japanese GWAR knockoff band. (Due to budgetary restraints, all body modifications effect only the upper torso). In their natural state, the aliens are pinkish blobs scuttling around in horseshoe crab shells and have the power to assault people with a whirring blur of tentacles far in excess of their body mass; once they set up shop inside a host, they clear out lungs, intestines and pancreases, and fuse with the remaining tissue to create a command bridge for themselves. They then control the host by pulling on a series of pink fleshy levers. The effect of all this absurd body modification can be awfully weird, particularly in the first third of the movie, when we don’t fully understand what’s going on yet.
What I found unexpectedly strange, however, is that the movie takes the viewpoint of an adolescent male who is terrified of sex. The hero, Yôji, is a factory worker who lives on his own, but the actor’s looks are so boyish that he appears to be a teenager among men. He doesn’t fit in with his working class peers, the cool guys who spend their breaks discussing their sexual conquests and planning parties to which he’s not invited. Terminally insecure, he often hears the sound of laughter ringing in his ears after a failure, whether it’s coming from a prostitute or an alien parasite. He’s awkward around women and can’t even bring himself to speak to Sachiko, the neighbor girl he fantasizes about and idolizes. We’re not shocked to learn that he’s a virgin. His experiences with sex are consistently humiliating or painful, and he can’t even penetrate the parasite shell he finds with his industrial drill press. (By contrast, the parasites naturally use a wickedly phallic organ to hook into their host’s bodies). When Yôji finally does get a willing girl alone in his apartment, the awkward seduction devolves into scarring horror, with a disquieting disrobing and a climax that ends in tentacle rape porn instead of tender, emotionally fulfilling lovemaking. Since he never actually scores, he remains sexually pure, and he’s finally able to consummate his passion via a scenario he can presumably relate to: a manga-style battle royale. In another movie, I might wonder if there was some deep psycho-sexual meaning to be found in all this fear-of-sex symbolism. Here, I have the nagging suspicion hat the script is merely trying to empathize with the concerns and obsessions of the group it perceives as its core audience.
Meatball Machine should appeal to those attracted to over-the-top Japanese “splatterpunk” movies (Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police); it’s a solid example of the form. But it’s not a movie to convert those who aren’t already immersed in this gory manga-influenced subculture; it doesn’t transcend or reinvent its specialized subgenre.
As a final note, the Danger After Dark DVD is lavish, including a 30 minute making of featurette and two short films, among other goodies. The first short is the original Meatball Machine film that inspired the feature, but the second short, Meatball Machine: Rejects of Death (2007) is more interesting. It’s a ten minute, highly politically incorrect music video-style production inspired by Meatball Machine‘s world and directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, the special effects and makeup guru for the original movie. I found it far more jaw-droppingly bizarre than the feature film, and at a brisk ten minutes, it didn’t wear out its welcome. If your on the fence about getting this DVD, the extra features just might push you over the edge.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…probably the strangest thing about the film is the fact that its central romance rings true, and is oddly moving, even when the blood and severed limbs are quite literally hitting the screen… Of course, it’s the violence and bizarre transformations which are the film’s main selling point, and on this score, ‘Meatball Machine’ is an absolute must-see for all fans of wild exploitation and gore.”–James Mudge, BeyondHollywood.com (DVD)
This review was suggested by reader “Keith.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.