Oh, that Takashi Miike.
Every time I go back to his early works, my relationship with him grows more complicated and admittedly strained. And with his now long-legendary streak of flirting with almost mercenary mainstream success, looking back at his often schizophrenic V-cinema days only highlights at why cult film fandom zeroed in on him so intensely. With his often languid, pacing, and clear budgetary limitations, what tends to get praised about the outsider auteur is laid out for all to see with his fifteenth feature, Full Metal Gokudo (aka- Full Metal Yakuza). And yet as this is done in largely cheeky, tonally whacked fashion, it's in the details that this straight-to-video effort takes parody, and grinds it headlong into walls of sobriety without taking a breath. And while it doesn't work for me the same way it did nearly fifteen years ago, there's enough here for fans of the odd to consider.
When young yakuza flunkie, Kensuke Hagane is murdered alongside his admired leader, Tosa (Takeshi Ceasar), his body is sold and rebuilt as a heroic machine by an insane robotics professor. Taught that his past life was mere prelude to this new one as a champion of justice, Hagane foresakes his resurrector in hopes of exacting revenge on the gang members who betrayed him and Tosa. Now no longer the incapable loan shark, and ladies man, Hagane is on a quest to know the truth (especially now that his body has been combined with parts of his powerful - and well-endowed inspiration), and finds that vengeance has its price. This description alone doesn't describe the feelings this recent screening evoked. Entire generations of yakuza and even chanbara are paid homage, and ultimately broken by Miike's unwillingness to play it safe. And considering the limitations of the home video film market (which largely works with budgets well below 500,000 US american), it's a miracle a film with this manner of oddness can come through with just enough emotional punch to make it work.
And while problems do persist in the pacing department, and the effects are decent to flat-out awful, what makes Gokudo so strangely charming is in how it never seems resolute in being one type of story. Much like a stream-of-consciousness porn film, there's an almost improvisational quality here that lends to uneasiness that becomes hard to stomach by the largely queasy finale. And yet it's all quite true to the yakuza dramas of yesterday. Miike never lets us forget how silly this all is, yet never succumbs to the kinetic overkill of ironic tokusatsu horror that saturated and defined the Sushi Typhoon lineup a decade later. Tsuyoshi Ujiki's robo Hagane, is played for giggles, and yet a tragic element remains when he exposes his back to his adversaries. Their lost leader's tattoo now back to haunt them on the body of another, once thought useless errand boy.
Also worth noting, is this theme of "combining" with your "Big Brother", which is something that Miike has explored in other places. There are elements here that smack heavily of his Dead Or Alive series, not to mention his gonzo epic, IZO. But the idea of young, incapable upstart, trading places (and often literally forms) with an admired leader. Taking not only the visage of your alpha counterpart, but the affections of their beloved as well. In this case, it is in the form of Yukari (played by Shoko Nakahara), who finds connection with Hagane, but cannot be due to his unique circumstances. Where this theme is played for squirm-inducing sexual satire in Gozu, here is done on that level and more. While the repressed sexual elements are indeed here, it must remain true to its classic yakuza roots complete with romantic tragedy complete with single swordsman against a virtual army of gangster soldiers.
So after this viewing, it came clear that it's alright to not completely excuse Miike's occasionally rocky results. And that perhaps it was this very unique voice that made for a more interesting cinema landscape toward the end of the twentieth century. It certainly was a bland time. One in dire need of some adventure. So he came about in the international scene in just the right time. Despite this, there is something happily outsider about his works that ring true in ways that even the most straight story cannot capture. Sure, Tomorowo Taguchi's mad scientist feels made up on the fly. But that plays well into the no-budget, no time playbook that is V-Cinema. In such a savage filmmaker's world, one has to film or die. And the end results are rarely clear or profound. At best, it can be merely fascinating just to see all that resourcefulness just fly.
While not "good" in any classical qualitative sense, there is no doubt that Miike's approach to whatever lands on his plate is freeing in rare and often telling ways. Even if it means kicking a gangster boss's head across town.