The Japanese splatter genre often treads a fine line between delivering what disaffected Americanized viewers, cynical of the happy ever after fairytale Hollywood endings (the type of producer-driven ideology that waters down hard boiled noir novels or foreign cinema adaptations), crave, and an outright return to the mind-numbing tedium of artistically bereft horror-exploitation cash cows. The choice is whether to take inspiration from a given style and celebrate the twist Japanese culture can have on it, utilising the standards of the mainstream and having some gore-filled fun with the tried-and-tested themes, or simply follow the formula of the least cerebral, cheapest yet most gruesomely eye catching imagery. The Machine Girl flirts with originality and genre subversion but ultimately falls squarely into the latter camp – good looking schoolgirl + gun limb appendage + blood = a marketable flick. Script and innovation unnecessary.
The title may sound like a sequel to The Bionic Woman, but there is no fresh faced Lindsay Wagner in sight. The rice-paper thin plot, written by Noboru Iguchi who also serves as director, is the sort of thing a twisted child might come up with whilst being forced to sit through an after-school special on the effects of bullying. Who knows, perhaps Iguchi found an old note pad from his school years where, whilst being imprisoned in a darkened class room and forced to watch a simplistic VHS yarn carted in by a local bobby about telling a teacher when you’re being bullied, he diverted his attention and started drawing a girl with a machine gun for an arm sticking knives in the bullies’ heads.
Whether it was a jotter full of gruesome childish scribblings or a genuinely new project, Iguchi followed the schmaltz of the educational films we were all made to watch. Once the title sequence has grabbed you by the throat, with numerous bodies, a pull back shot through the lead character’s legs and some par-for-the-course static images coupling the credits, the backstory begins with all the earnestness of an afternoon made-for-TV movie. Asami, or Ami for short, is a schoolgirl who excels at sports, lives with her younger brother and looks after him following the death of their parents. Whilst vomit-inducing saccharine music plays in the background we get to see her happy-go-lucky life as she plays basketball. Cue some nasty school ruffians, led by a foppish floppy haired son of a yakuza - who would easily win a most slappable teen contest with anyone bar Justin Beiber – and the result is one dead brother. No matter, the lad still gets more screen time as a catalyst for revenge than Fincher gave Newt in Alien 3, but not by much. He had a name, but I doubt it was decided upon until the final draft (assuming there was more than one), up to which point he’d likely be titled “Dead brother/impetus for retribution”. Once he’s taken a face first dive onto the pavement (and managed in the process to produce the least amount of blood from anybody in the entire film), and Ami handily finds a notebook of his with the page heading “People I want to kill” listing all those who’ve likely been involved in his death (what a stroke of luck), Big Sis begins her quest for justice.
As with any decent revenge tale, particularly those involving a law abiding upstanding butter-wouldn’t-melt type as the protagonist, the old problem of “Why didn’t they just go to the police?” is quickly answered – one of the bullies is the son of the local law, and given Ami’s parents committed suicide over allegations of murder she is unsurprisingly disbelieved. Like shapes slotted into a painfully simplistic infant’s puzzle, the opening act is entirely set up to establish what is to follow. In truth Iguchi needn’t have bothered, as a slip of logic would not have made an ounce of difference to the fans eager to get to the bloodshed. This isn’t aiming to be akin to Boorman’s Point Blank, hell it isn’t even comparable to the straight-to-video eighties Mickey Rourke flick Point Break, it’s lo-fi gore trash and thankfully it realises it in quick smart time.
Given the poster art of the one armed schoolgirl with a machine gun attachment on her severed limb, it takes a fair amount of time for said limb to exit stage right. This is one of the few instances where viewers will probably be eager for a hero or heroine to fall foul of an attack that leaves them sans appendage. Which brings me to my main bugbear with The Machine Girl – all the damn screaming. Maybe I’m a wuss (admittedly that’s a fairly small “maybe” given I still can’t watch the dog being eaten by Jaws), but I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to cut a girl’s arm off you should at least do it quickly. Ami is instead captured by her yakuza assailants and they take a bit of time to finish the task, and by God the girl doesn’t half scream loudly. For a film that contains a cast with the acting ability of Freddie Prinze Junior on a bad day, the rending wails of a young girl being taken apart piece by piece actually manage to still have some impact and dammit, it mixes the ridiculous over-the-top eurggh factor with a hint of realism, surely that’s not fair?
After an escape, being patched up by a pair of mechanics (the biggest shock of the film is they did it the same day and didn’t charge her!) - the parents of another victim of the bullies – Ami gains her iconic weapon, built in true A-Team montage fashion, as we watch her one minute rehabilitation and training turn her into a fighting machine. Teaming up with Miki, the mother of her brother’s departed friend, the pair go on a rampage of retribution. As with any black hearted revenge flick, the key to not allowing your audience to lapse into thinking “steady on, that’s a bit uncalled for” is depicting the bad guys as positively devilish, and Iguchi goes to town in this regard. Even Old Nick himself might take a gander at the punishments handed out to wayward staff in the yakuza household, such as a chef being forced to eat his own finger on sushi, and think Hell would be better off without that class of resident. The balance isn’t quite delivered, as although the villains are diabolical, so are our two heroines, and if anything they seem to enjoy it more. Gaining information by bashing nails into a henchman’s head is all well and dandy but don’t smile whilst you’re doing so. Something as simple as laughing placed in the middle of an act of violence can change the mood from viewers watching a hard boiled tale of vengeance to instead bearing witness to a full blown mental breakdown, a central character who goes from appearing the avenger of the weak to an unhinged sadistic psychopath.
The slapstick elements hold back the tide of outright insanity to some extent, but all too often inventive deaths are eschewed in favour of just more blood and screaming. Perhaps it’s uncaring of me to see a woman getting her foot ripped off by a flying guillotine and think “stick a sock in it love”, but there it is, I doubt I’m alone in wishing she was the fainting type. The crutch that helps elongate the running time of a feature that might have been eighty minutes of fun allows unnecessary realism and a few less than cartoonish depictions of sadism slip through the net. There are scenes galore for ghoulish fans to revel in, and it isn’t everyday you see a drill bra or a decapitated corpse being utilised as a spray gun of sorts, but as a film The Machine Girl is a muddled mess that actually feels more tailored towards the Western market than a genuine slice of Japanese gore. Perhaps in the post VHS video nasty days such titles fail to shock, but it’s hard to see The Machine Girl going down in folklore like Riki-Oh, it lacks the ability to transfix with any blink-and-you’ll miss-it flashes of offal or moments where the audience will ask “did he really just do that?”, yet can’t quite muster the humour necessary to fall entirely into the slapstick territory of out-and-out cartoon violence. Fans may love it, but outside of that clique most will struggle to see the appeal.
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