Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trashback: Mikadroid - Robokill Beneath Club Layla

                                                   Jigoku Natsukashii

As I promised myself that the coming months would see some more adventurous choices in my reviews, even if they were short, in comes this long-overlooked piece of V-cinema schlock from a personally hallowed period of Japanese film, the late 80s-early 90s. Around this period of time, many of the mom and pop video stores would stock up on seemingly random batches of often clunky, cheaply produced, ultra-weird films from the far east. And just as certain anime from the height of the OVA era were making their way to our shores, there were many a film brought here, offering a glimpse into what would become the last glimmering lights of Japan's Bubble Era, featuring many now considered passe tropes of visual media of this time period. From the neon skylit nights in Tokyo, to the visage of young would-be professionals hitting on perm-hair-wearing cuties in discos with no-less business cards, supposed credentials, all signaling to some promise of a night in some hot car(likely nowhere near as cool as they claim it to be), ready to speed off into the night. All the while, synthesizers played along in the background, as digitally sampled taiko drums took us lumbering from one improbable situation to the next. What many of these films lacked in budget, they often made up for in goofy charm, and inventive practical effects.

While definitely little more than a footnote in this time capsule,the Toho Studios produced MIKADROID: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla is emblematic of all that was both charming, and often annoying about the V-cinema world. Which isn't to say that it doesn't start off with a modicum of charm.

Right out the gate, we are shown how the Japanese military machine had enlisted scientists to help create a new breed of mechanized soldier to improve the position in the Pacific end of WWII, only to scrap the project later. The head scientist's work set to be eliminated, he is shot by a commanding officer, and in his last moments frees two of his remaining human-cyborg volunteers, who promptly escape termination. And with his last breath, the scientist unleashes the third soldier, the only one who had undergone complete conversion, who kills the commanding officer and walks off into the underground, never to be seen again. Jump forward to 1990, Tokyo, where several strangers are about to converge on seedy discotech, Layla, where the two enhanced soldiers will reunite with their heavily armored, and armed buddy are to have their final clash. All this as a young electrician, and usually cool as ice businesswoman, Saeko are caught in the bloody crossfire, all the while trapped within the underground sections of the building that houses the disco.

                        Oh don't worry. You'll only see this expression every five minutes.

So yes, this is essentially a no-budget exploitation piece wearing The Terminator suit and tie. But it isn't without it's surprises. The names that pop up as part of this production are so surprising, and yet a reminder of so many other names that became legend a while after this period. Among the staff include director Tomoo Haraguchi who recently gave us Death Kappa, former Gainax staffer/ Gamera effects master, Shinji Higuchi in his first real gig, as well as Detective Conan's Junichi Miyashita (with help from Masami Hara of Getter Robo fame) who wrote this film, not to mention an early score by the ever recognizable Kenji Kawai. Also worth noting, is the cameo appearance of a young Kiyoshi Kurosawa!

So when reviewing this film, it perhaps pays to look at it as something of a boilerhouse project, a means to taste test certain ideas long before any major work could come through. With moments like when a skateboarder is machine-gunned, only to be discovered still standing in mid-roll riddled with bulletholes Mikadroid wears its V-Cinema loudly on its sleeve. There is even an inexplicable moment of nudity that almost asks to be taken in an artistic dance context, which feels wildly out of place until one realizes that much of the film's bizarre pacing owes more to live theater than to more aggressively paced Hollywood films. But despite this, the entire package feels less like a film, and more like a dry run. Having done a little homework on the film, it seems that the sci-fi angle was chosen out of necessity, being that the notorious Tsutomu Miyazaki murder case had recently sent shockwaves throughout Japan, putting horror films and manga under harsh scrutiny. Which is sad since when one thinks about it, sci-fi films almost inevitably come out with larger price tags than horror, which is likely what led to the film's choices. And while it isn't all bad. There is certainly a lot more potential fun that could have been mined from the concept.

As it stands, Mikadroid is little more than a fun time drifter, with some interesting practical designs (the unused supertank seen in the background of the finale left me hoping for something like a GUNHED battle, but such as dreams...), and some amusingly off performances. (Yoriko Doguchi's cool-on-the-surface Saeko becomes nothing less than your typical whimpering hysteric, punctuated by excessive blank stares by the end) On a metaphorical level, this film could seriously have been more impressive. The concept of the ghosts of the past haunting the present in this manner seems rife with potential. But it merely settles with the mere idea alone, which is a bit of a disappointment. There also seems to be an attempt at embedding a sexual undercurrent, but it never has a chance to be more than incongruous flourish.

                                        A little late-night hardball never hurt anyone.

One film that could definitely benefit from playing it up. That said, is it wrong of me to still like silly perm hairdos?

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