Full Metal Yakuza (1997)
I'll be the first to admit it - I know dip-doodly about modern Japanese cinema. In a message board recently, I confused Takashi Miike with Beat Takeshi, a cardinal sin which was pointed out with some amount of politeness almost immediately. My sheer ignorance probably has something to do with the fact that, up until now, the most recent Japanese film I'd seen was Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. So you'll forgive some blundering in this review.
Ken Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) desperately wants to be Yakuza. He looks up to the lifestyle, but finds the actual details (the killing, threatening, beating) to be well beyond what he's capable of. A non-violent man striving to succeed in a violent world, he bumbles his way from one botched job to the next until he ends up murdered in an underworld crossfire, only to be resurrected as the part-man, part-machine Full Metal Yakuza.
This is a goofy movie, truth be told. It's very much a gangster remake of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, and unlike the American film, which hid its inherent absurdities in satire, this tries to hide its inherent absurdities in unnecessary absurdities (like giving the previously impotent Ken a massive new member - which is conveniently blurred out of all shots in which it is exposed). Sometimes its a comedy, sometimes its a gory revenge flick, and sometimes its just trash. While it gleefully embraces whatever genre its playing in, it never manages to find a real through-line so that the tempers mesh properly.
This is not to say that there's nothing to commend about the film. For one thing, Troma fans should enjoy it a great deal, as it often plays like a Lloyd Kaufman movie that has been stripped of the cloying social commentary and given something resembling a budget and an actual storyline. The hero, as it were, is a truly tragic figure, and his narrative cycle is very watchable, even if you do have to dodge random plot peculiarities.
For his part, Miike keeps the pace going, and smoothly moves us from one part of the film to the next. The pacing, so very key to making a film like this work, is very solid, although certain scenes involving the madcap scientist played by Genpaku Haraga could have been trimmed for a more satisfying ride. One major quibble, however, is that one never gets a real sense of time in the movie. The action will jump ahead a few months, and it's impossible to tell until somebody off-handedly mentions it.
One note of particular disgust - for all of its wacky antics, Full Metal Yakuza contains a handful of blatantly misogynistic scenes that center around the rape and torture of the female lead (Shoko Nakahara). It doesn't gel with the rest of the film, and what had been a cheerfully violent sci-fi/action/gangster film degenerates into the very worst kind of exploitation. Approach this film with that warning, if you can approach it at all.
The Artsmagic DVD is presented uncut in an enhanced 16:9 anamorphic format, with subtitles. This is the very first of the predominantly British company's American releases, so give them some attention and buy some copies so that we can get some other Japanese films in wider release on these shores. There's a bevy of extras, including a full-length commentary by Miike expert Tom Mes (who is moderately interesting, but tries to make the film far more artistically important than it really is), and interviews with Miike, editor Yasushi Shimamura, and Ujiki.
Full Metal Yakuza is an oddball of a film, not to everyone's tastes. Surely, if you think this film is your kind of sake, then this is the DVD to buy. Violence, explosions, perversions of science (in many sense of the term), decapitations, gore, and guns, guns, guns. Those in love with the edge of cinema will find this teetering precariously over the void, right where they want it.