Covert Culture


Things are different in Japan. Not only are comix (collectively called Manga) a part of everyday adult pop culture, but so is science fiction. Not in the Start Trek/Star Wars model, though space opera is a popular form in Japanese SF. No, in the same way that they've taken Euro/American pop forms and remade them in their own image, the Japanese have reworked  science fiction films. Especially low budget SF films.

Probably the most famous of these low budget, cyberpunkish, wonders is director/writer Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The story of Tetsuo is simple and odd; it tells the tale of a bland Salaryman who—for mysterious reasons—begins to transform into a chimera, a weird combination of human flesh and metal.

What's most impressive about Tetsuo isn't the story, but how the story is told (all the films in this review share this quality). Tetsuo is a shattered narrative: all the elements of traditional narrative are present, but shifted in such a way that on first viewing, they can be almost incomprehensible. Director Tsukamoto wanted the hallucinatory and terrifying experience of the Salaryman's transformation into a new lifeform to be something the audience could experience, too. He deliberately throws off the viewer's balance and assaults her/him with wholly alien noise and images. And Tsukamoto did this on the kind of film budget that Hollywood types reserve for cufflinks and lunches.

That's part of the aesthetic of all these movies: they're inexpensive and they're skin deep. This is a cyberpunk science fiction of the purest kind. It's cheap, has a surface simplicity but often many internal complexities, and concerns ideas such as body invasion and characters losing or regaining their humanity.

Three other Japanese films in this mutant genre are Pinocchio 964, Death Powder, and Bloody Fragments on White Walls (I'm sure this last title sounded a lot better in Japanese…). While they're very different films, they have some important similarities. Each was shot on a microscopic budget (only Pinocchio was shot on film; the other two were all done in video). Each manages to use its limitations in script, set designs and costumes to great advantage, forcing the directors to create outrageous shooting styles and filmic set-pieces that make their cheapness part of the aesthetic—sort of the movie equivalent of garage rock. All of the films also look at aspects of body invasion, whether by technology itself, or by those who serve technology.

Bloody Fragments on White Walls is the crudest and the least obviously SF of the bunch. It has a lot in common, in form, with Polanski's Repulsion in that both films are told from the point-of-view of a woman going through a mental breakdown. Bloody Fragments, however, goes much further than Polanksi ever dreamed of, depicting the exact and brutal nature of the heroine's madness. The woman, Yoko, is a patient at a drug treatment facility, but we don't know that until the end. We're presented with her vision as reality. In her worldview, Yoko is stabbed, raped, seduced by her young female nurse, forced to undergo involuntary brain surgery and to watch her own viscera slide out of her body to the floor…

It's brutal and unsettling stuff, all shot at bizarre angles, in the flat color-saturated look that video can give everything from a concert to surveillance footage. Essentially, Bloody Fragments invents a new subgenre: the Science Fiction Medical Art Slasher Film.

Death Powder also concerns a character's slide into madness, but with far less brutality and in a more traditional SF setting. In fact, Death Powder's  set-up is quite familiar by now: a group of freelance mercenaries steal a top secret cyborg, the Guernica. Apparently, they don't know that the thing is a weapon and can exhale the hallucinatory "Death Powder." Once infected, each of the mercenaries slips into an alternate reality, one where they're dominated by the mysterious Scar People. Much of the film concerns the mercenaries trying to make sense of their new, shifting reality (which can look like anything from a cheesy rock video to an industrial wasteland), or trying to avoid the Death Powder, and dealing with the mad men who've already been infected.

Director Shigeru Izumiya makes clever use of his almost nonexistent budget. He couldn't build a convincing cyborg, so he doesn't try. His Guernica cyborg is an attractive woman in a form-fitting latex bodysuit, with blacked-out goggles on her eyes and a molded plastic nozzle covering her mouth. The image is pure science fiction fetish chic. Izumiya is equally clever with his film, intercutting black and white stock footage with his own video and computer-generated images. The result is a kind of rock & roll science fiction collage. One in which story and linearity are much less important than movement and texture.

Pinocchio 964 is easily the most filmic of this new breed of Japanese SF. It's already an underground classic in its homeland and is slowly getting a rep in the US and Europe. Like Death Powder, this film centers around a cyborg; in this case, the sex-slave cyborg Pinocchio 964. The film opens with him being tossed onto the street when he can't quite keep up with his female owner's fetishistic demands. Designed only for sexual stimulation, Pinocchio 964 has no idea how to cope in the real world. Fortunately, he's befriended by a street kid, Himiko. She keeps him alive and helps him regain his memory (yes, RoboCop-like, he wasn't always a machine, but a human who was stripped own and rebuilt for someone else's purposes). The result of his memory shock is a brutal and surreal revenge on those who rebuilt him.

Physically, Pinocchio 964 echoes Tetsuo in many ways. It even uses some of the same camera tricks to make its inhuman characters appear even more inhuman (filming characters at a slow shutter speed to make their movements look ultra-quick and machine-like). It also focuses on bodies in the act of transformation, though Pinocchio 964 shifts the story from Salaryman suburbia to the streets and the upscale sexual underground. The film's constant state of brutal arousal is probably one of the main reasons it's reached such high cult status. It's also a visually dazzling movie, shot in hot color, the opposite of Tetsuo's metallic black and white.

What always great about films like these is that they change the way you see you see films. They prove that science fiction can be both visually exciting and thematically challenging, even on a low budget. It's little surprise that they all come from Japan, a country culturally close enough for our pop cultures to infect and affect each other, but different enough
to us to find  something new in the other's work.

Tetsuo is available at your local video store. Pinocchio 964, Death Powder and Bloody Fragments on White Walls are all available from Video Search of Miami, Box 16-1917, Miami, FL 33116; 305 279 9773;

About This Story

  • Author: Richard Kadrey
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Dec 1999