And Frankenstein begat Robocop, which begat Ken
Takashi Miike is best known in the West for Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, Audition, and other extra-gross, ultraviolent, camp-trash films from the late 1990s to today. While Full Metal Yakuza (1997) was made before Miike’s cult status kicked in around the time of Audition (1999), it wasn’t his first film — the Internet Movie Database lists 21 earlier ones (some of them TV movies). Full Metal Yakuza, like much of his earlier work, was shot on digital video for distribution to video stores. But with its endless parade of hacked-off limbs, fetishized sex, campy humor, and general carnage, it belongs with the higher-profile later work, even if it lacks some of the operatic insanity of those films.
Full Metal Yakuza blends the yakuza film with Robocop riffs, with some Frankenstein touches thrown in for good measure. Kensuke Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) is a sweet but pathetic janitor working for powerful gangster Tousa, head of a yakuza clan. Ken, as he’s called, wants to be a yakuza himself, though it’s instantly clear that he lacks the stomach for it. When Tousa goes to prison for seven years, Ken faithfully tries to live up to what he thinks are his boss’s expectations. Sent to strong-arm a shopkeeper for protection money, he chickens out and starts crying. During a session with the local prostitute, she reviles him as “useless … limp dick as always!” He’s also an easy target for the local street gang.
In an unexpected Psycho-ish moment, Ken and Tousa are killed early in the film, right after the latter’s release, with Tousa leaping in front of his faithful friend to protect him. But unlike the Hitchcock film, here the dead star returns. Ken’s corpse is bought by mad scientist Hiraga (Tomorowo Taguchi), who enjoys transforming human bodies into cyborgs. (He’s seen throughout the film trying to refashion dead girls as half-metal porn stars.) Speaking of sleaze, Miike also pays tribute throughout not only to the yakuza film (expected) but to ’60s goremeisters like Herschell Gordon Lewis. Tousa’s girlfriend recalls Lewis’s gruesomely murdered Playboy playmates, with rivers of obviously fake blood pouring out of her mouth as she dies. The moment when she sticks out her tongue, followed by a spew of blood, will surely recall for gorehounds the infamous tongue-ectomy in Blood Feast.
Ken’s resurrection is also a transformation. His new cyborg-self has some unusual powers: a mostly metal body, Roderick Usher-like ears that hear sounds miles away, eyes that see through walls, and, in a definite departure from the Robocop mold, a giant killer penis. (Surveying his new body, Ken puts his hands in his pants and says with wonder, “Big! and circumcised…”) The limp dick is now the hung hunk. Even his look is different. From the blubbering, hunched-over geek, Ken becomes a confident comic-book hero, ready to kick yakuza ass.
Before he can do so, Dr. Hiraga needs to make some more adjustments. If there were any doubt about the identity of the filmmaker, the scenes in Hiraga’s lair lay them to rest. Ken’s old body parts are seen steaming in a bloody bathtub. Ken himself appears at one point as a detached head, a la The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, while Hiraga (who refers to himself as “the Nutty Professor”) strips off part of Ken’s scalp, removes the eyeball, and performs various other unpleasantries on his stoic guinea pig. In a grotesque-poetic touch typical of Miike, Hiraga has transferred the heavily tattooed skin from Tousa’s back to Ken’s.
With Ken reborn, the film switches inevitably to revenge mode. He will use his newfound powers to decimate the yakuza gang that murdered his beloved boss — and pay back the local boy gang for assaulting him. These payback moments are visualized as choreographed violence, with prosthetic limbs flying and blood spraying in every direction. In one memorable scene, Ken whacks off the head of one of his enemies and hurls it across space to land seemingly miles away in a room full of the decapitated’s cohorts. In another, he slices a friend who betrayed him in half, a moment Miike milks for dark comedy. The sex scenes (if you can call them sex) are also extreme, with elements of bondage and necrophilia that would be featured in more elaborate tableaux in Miike’s later films.
Not that the film is only violent and gross. There’s an extended beach idyll, during which Ken melancholically contemplates whether he’s man or monster. This surprisingly sweet sequence is capsized, in the Miike mode, when Tousa’s ex-girlfriend sees her former lover’s tattooed back on Ken and reacts in horror. There are also moments of visual poetry that give viewers a rest from the bloodletting. A very atmospheric scene shows Ken short-circuiting in the rain. He retreats to a phone booth, from which electrical charges rage and smoke billows while drizzling rain and shadows envelop the booth and its inhabitant. Miike uses the smoking motif elsewhere — most notably in a very simple shot of a car driving away from the camera with smoke pouring out of it — as a neat indicator of Ken’s agitated mental state.
Actor Tsuyoshi Ujiki (a former rock star) generates some serious sympathy for the tragic Ken, who plays the part with appropriately overstated brio. The many POV shots keep the viewer inside his head as he grapples, Frankenstein-like, with his own nature. Like Robocop, he’s at first ignorant of his past but is retooled to remember and revisit the trauma that brought him to where he is.
If Ken emerges as an affecting character in what is essentially comic-book comedy-drama, the others are mostly cardboard camp, undifferentiated puppets in Miike’s amusingly overwrought mise-en-scene. And despite the grimness and violence, Full Metal Yakuza is a comedy, if a dark one. Miike keeps the laughs coming despite the horror, playing up the silliness of the science behind Ken’s transformation (“I’ll need some more super-alloy!”), or showing the killer dick pop out to murder an assailant, who explodes, leaving only a suit standing. While the film lacks the kind of cutting social critique of Robocop (Miike’s less interested in satirizing corporate culture than Verhoeven), Full Metal Yakuza should satisfy Miike’s fans who want something slightly less crazy than the projectile lactation in Visitor Q or the death by drowning in a feces-filled kiddy pool in Dead or Alive.
ArtsMagic has done an excellent job on this DVD. Anamorphic video and audio are fine for this hastily shot digital video production. The ample extras make it well worth purchasing. (As one reviewer pointed out, this really should be called a Special Edition.) They include interviews with Miike (35 minutes), editor Yasushi Shimamura (14 minutes), and star Tsuyoshi Ujiki. Miike’s interview is particularly informative. Here we learn that the film took two weeks to shoot, that he “prefers to decide everything the day it’s filmed,” and, most shockingly given Ujiki’s over-the-top performance, that he likes “heroes that are rather dull.” Also here are a winning commentary by expert Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike, along with bios, filmographies, and trailers.