Film Review – Meatball Machine (2005)

Asia – as a continent, have a long list of controversial, excessively violent and overtly sexual films that due to their rising popularity throughout the 21st century led to the term “extreme cinema” being most associated with the Eastern world.

The most notable culprits who have helmed these unrestrained, hypersexual pieces of cinema are Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto, Sion Sono and Yoshihiro Nishimura. Infamous wrongdoers include Audition, Battle Royale, Oldboy, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tokyo Gore Police, The Machine Girl and the Guinea Pig series to name just a few.

Having a turbulent relationship with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK, most of the films to come from that side of the hemisphere were deemed “explicit works” and exceeded what the BBFC considers acceptable for its 18 certificate. Instead many releases would be given the most restrictive certificates, an “R18” rating – meaning in practice; hardcore pornography.

However, many of these films were still released on DVD under the “Asia Extreme” banner by UK-established and the sorely missed, Tartan Films. You know the ones. Those films that had covers that unfailingly caught your eye in your local Blockbuster and hmv stores. Tartan Asia Extreme was the cornerstone of cult cinema all the way through the early and mid 2000s until its demise in 2008. Mercifully, we now have Arrow Video, Third Window Films and Terracotta Distribution who handle distributing all the best nasties from across the globe. Tartan Films walked so that the new kids on the block could run.

Meatball Machine – a true, unequivocally rare cult classic of the extreme Asian cinema of yesteryear that at last has found its resurrection through past and present Asian cinema specialists, Terracotta Distribution. And thank goodness!

Based on the 1999 low budget 70-minute film of the same name, Meatball Machine was revised and directed by Yūdai Yamaguchi and original conceptor, Jun’ichi Yamamoto back in 2005. The Japanese cyberpunk splatter film stars Issey Takahashi as Yôji, a lonely factory worker who falls in love with the equally lonely Sachiko (Aoba Kawai). Unfortunately for these two young lovebirds, extra-terrestrial lifeforms invade Earth. Capable of making bio-mechanical weapons out of human flesh, these “Necroborgs” turn their hosts into maniacal killers who seek and destroy each other in an over-the-top bloody fashion!

Part “splatstick” and part unconventional love story, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto‘s film is the archetypal Japanese bizarro science fiction cyberpunk body horror flick that we in the Western world go absolutely nuts for.

Similarly to Shinya Tsukamoto’s two Tetsuo forefathering cyberpunk films, Meatball Machine is plainly an exercise in style over substance. The underlying themes, metaphors and minimal storytelling are abundantly clear, but for the majority of the runtime you’re simply too busy being completely drawn into the utterly outlandish special effects makeup and mold making by “the Tom Savini of Japan”, Yoshihiro Nishimura. With over a dozen directorial features (Tokyo Gore Police and Helldriver being the most noteworthy) and almost 100 special effects and makeup department credits under his belt, there is no denying that Nishimura’s contribution to Japanese cinema is nothing short of legendary.

Just like the many greats from Toho Studios catalogue, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto‘s film is suitmation tokusatsu in its purest form. Mentally picture those preliminary Godzilla, King Kong and Gamera bombastic kaiju films. That is the campy, balls to the wall essence that Meatball Machine successfully recaptures. Rubberised suits, bouncy prosthetics flail on-screen, soundtracked by upbeat, thumping techno music. All of the extravagantly violent and goregasmic fight scenes play out comparably to the much more PG-friendly, Michael Bay explosions galore, climatic, end-of-show Super Sentai Mecha/giant robo and Power Rangers Zord/Megazord more battle scenes.

From a technical standpoint, Meatball Machine is no marvel. The filmmaking is adequate but basic. It is very obviously not a work of Akira Kurosawa. There isn’t any breathtaking, Kazuo Miyagawa-esque cinematography on display nor any intricate or elaborate camerawork. Instead, the offbeat and eccentric genre hybrid favours something far less meticulously. Through its series of quick, sloppy cuts and edits, the films pace feels that similar of reading a manga/comic book or graphic novel. Whether that was the actual artistic intention of Yamaguchi and Yamamoto, I’m not so sure but I can comfortably lap up what is on offer.

The skeletal narrative which focuses on the young twosome and their misfortune of being kept apart by the foreign assailants that occupy their bodies is peculiarly quite tender. If you look between the blood-soaked lines, the seemingly perverse subject matter is really a compassionate metaphor on ill-fated lovers who fail to express their feelings leading to a breakdown in connection. The wacky and overblown final clash between Yôji and Sachiko conveys its message of emotional burdens becoming monstrous and parasitical, if you dig deep enough for it. As a body horror film, Meatball Machine is less a thought-provoking David Cronenberg-fledged The Fly piece of work and more a Ed Wood unintentional genius kind of calamity.

Far from perfect but far from imperfect, Meatball Machine offers cinematic escapism only the East know how to achieve. It is completely out of the ordinary. Entertainment at its silliest but most engrossing. The West wishes it could authentically encapsulate this level of madness.

Just over 10 years later in 2017, a long-awaited sequel arrived. With advancements in modern film technologies, a bigger budget and cast appearances from the likes of Eihi Shiina (Audition), Yoshihiro Nishimura helmed Meatball Machine: Kodoku and upped the ante whilst maintaining what made it a standout back in the mid 2000s. Hopefully Terracotta Distribution will acquire the rights to one day release this Japanese cult staple on Blu-ray too.

★★★


Action, Horror | Japan, 2005 | 18 | Blu-Ray Ltd Edition | 12th April 2021 (UK) | Terracotta Distribution | Dir.Yudai Yamaguchi, Jun’ichi Yamamoto | Issei Takahashi, Aoba Kawai, Kenichi Kawasaki