Friday, July 23, 2004


For the past couple of days, I've been watching (the whole way through this time) two films on DVD. The first, Full Metal Yakuza (the Japanese title isFull Metal Gokudoh), is a 1997 direct-to-video film by the incredibly prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike. While the title suggests Full Metal Jacket, the film is more like "Robocop with yakuza." Hagane, the main character, is technically a Yakuza, but he's as hapless and put-upon as any salaryman. When he is sent to collect a debt, the debtor's wife chases him away with a kitchen knife, and his boss tells him to go back to cleaning toilets. Later, when he tells a group of young punks he encounters that he's a yakuza, they don't believe him and beat him up. When Tosa, a high-level yakuza whom Hagane admires, is the victim of a hit, Hagane happens to be there and is hit too.

That's not the end of Hagane's story, though. A scientist (whose colleagues call him "the Nutty Professor") who is trying to create a man-machine hybrid has bought Hagane's and Tosa's corpses, and produces a superstrong, bulletproof cyborg with Hagane's brain. Converted from wimp to super-yakuza, Hagane goes to get revenge from the ones who killed him and Tosa.

In some ways this film is a precursor to Miike's later Ichi the Killer: both films feature a criminal "superhero" who wreaks bloody vengeance on other criminals (though the violence here is neither as excessive nor as inventive as in Ichi). But compared to Ichi, Full Metal Yakuza seems half-baked: the first half is funny, but once Hagane goes on his mission of vengeance, the film becomes a fairly conventional yakuza movie. The best joke is that Hagane's cyborg body incorporates various parts of Tosa's body, including his penis ("It's huge and circumcised!" exclaims Hagane upon discovering his new "equipment"), putting a unique twist upon the latently homosexual nature of Hagane's admiration for Tosa; but Miike doesn't really do anything with this (in both the literal and figurative senses). Still, if you like Miike, this film is worth renting, though it shouldn't be the first Miike film you watch, or the fifth. The disc contains a half-hour long interview with Miike, which winds up being less about the film specifically than about Miike's philosophy of filmmaking in general. It also has a commentary track by Tom Mes, author of a book on Miike; from the fifteen minutes of this I listened to, it didn't seem very interesting.

The other film I watched, Nothing So Strange, is a very unusual film. It's a "mockumentary," if you like, but unlike all the other mockumentaries I've watched or heard of, it's not a comedy. Its premise is that Bill Gates was assassinated in 1999 in Los Angeles by a lone gunman, who was supposedly killed by a policeman almost immediately afterward. A small group of people believe that the L. A. P. D. is covering up the truth, and form an organization called "Citizens for Truth" to demand an independent investigation. The first half of the film basically presents Citizens for Truth's case, while the second half chronicles their efforts to bring their case to a wider public. The film does a good job of exploring the issue of how we can know the truth about any event: while the "official story" has its implausible elements, Citizens for Truth's theory has its own weaknesses, though these aren't explicitly pointed out; and we never do find out the "truth." It's also a good portrayal of the dynamics of small-group political activism.

As I said, the film isn't a comedy. If you didn't know that Gates hasn't been assassinated, there would be nothing in it to indicate that it wasn't a real documentary (including the end credits). The actors never "wink" at the audience, and really do play their parts as if they're not actors playing roles, but real activists.

This film has a commentary track, too: in this case it's done by "Brian Flemming," the director of the fictional documentary, who shares the name of the film's real director, and by the two most important actors, all in character. The first fifteen minutes of this commentary, in which the director is soloing is the only place where the DVD falls into parody, as Flemming (as the fictional director) deliberately gives a bad commentary; I don't know why he chose to do this, and it strikes a wrong note. The rest of the commentary, when he's supposedly talking to the two major figures of Citizens for Truth three years after most of the film's events took place, is much more interesting, and virtually an extension of the film itself.

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