Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE LAST FRANKENSTEIN (1991)

The Japanese have always had a sort of disconnect with western mythology. It’s understandable, but for the most part the classic monsters of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jewel of the Seven Stars and European legends of lycanthropes, are treated as amusing fodder for children and icons of comedy. On occasion they are handled with grave seriousness with great results (Michio Yamamoto’s excellent DRACULA series from the ‘70s). More often than not, it’s a goofy, cheesy mess that appeals strictly to the Japanese and uber-nerdy J-Fans.

Suicide has always been a popular Japanese pastime and, since they were never invaded by the Spanish and forced to worship Christ at sword-point, they consider it nothing to be ashamed of. Matter of fact, it’s a noble way to go. In present day a new theology has sprung up called Shino-Kiyo and the white-faced leader professes that suicide is the way to take control of your life and everyone must embrace the right to kill themselves. During a demonstration, an over excited TV reporter asks passersby what they think about suicide. A teenage girl responds, “it seems really popular, but I don’t want to try it”.


Caught up in this is an anatomy professor, Sarusawa (Akira Emoto) whose wife committed suicide five years earlier and whose teenage daughter, Mai (Aya Otabe), developed psychic powers soon after. During a meeting (in which one professor smacks himself on the head with a paddle while laughing uproariously), the university professors decide that this suicide epidemic is actually a virus that attacks the brain and takes 3-5 years to incubate. During the discussion of the virus, Sarusawa speaks up:
Sarusawa: “It is possible that I am already infected with this disease.”
(pregnant pause while other professors stare)
Angry professor: “Don’t bring personal problems to this meeting!”
Sarusawa: “Sorry.”

The dean of the university (who keeps live chickens on his desk) enlists Sarusawa to go seek out rogue scientist Dr. Aleo (Yoshio Harada), who is supposed to be looking into the problem. As it turns out, Aleo could care less about the virus and in fact wants the human race to die off so that his “supermen” can re-populate the planet. His new race is going to be created from two re-animated corpses. How is he going to re-animate them? Lightning and electrodes? Too old fashioned! A glowing green serum injected into the brainstem? It’s been done! Nope, his master stroke to rule the world depends on kidnapping Mai to have her use her psychic powers to bring them back to life. So, wait… this self-acclaimed genius isn’t actually going to do anything? He’s just going to use someone else’s psychic power? Not really all that much of a scientist, is he?

Once the superman and his bride are up and re-animated, Aleo demands that they have sex, immediately! This, of course, doesn’t work and leads to the next hour of the movie, in which Aleo tries to get the two to have sex (one way is to force them to watch porn), Sarusawa preaches the need to teach them love, everyone is sexually frustrated, eventually goes mad and... well, you can see where this is heading. There are other diversions as well. For some reason the cultists are locked in a room of Aleo's house. There's a wacky, cartoon-style boxing match between Sarusawa and Aleo's hunchbacked assistant Harou (Naomasa Musaka). There's the preserved baby that Aleo is so fond of. The superman is obsessed with the sea and in long, long, sequences contemplates the sea and howls at it. One of the episodes (chapters?) is an interview with the superman in which he gives slow, cryptic answers to the cryptic questions of an off screen interviewer. One of the better moments has the bride reading an anatomy book and being sexually aroused by the illustrated cross-section of the male intestinal tract and genitalia.

Based on the play of the same name, writer-director Takeshi Kawamura tells the already disjointed story in multiple segments, each headed by a title card, giving the film a more episodic feel that it would have already had. There are fragments of bizarre inspiration, such as a bit where Mai goes into a comatose state and the doctor informs Sarusawa that it is because she forgot how to use her brain. In this state she levitates a cream-colored coffee cup out of a window and drops it to the ground, shattering it. This coincides with a woman in a cream-colored suit plummeting to her death, drawing a visual metaphor to the smashed cup and the smashed corpse. There is one other sequence that alludes to Mai being the cause of the suicides, but nothing else comes of this and the idea is simply dropped like so many others. Another interesting sequence has Aleo and Harou going into the city to kidnap Mai out of the hospital. Everyone in the city is frozen in time while Aleo and Harou walk through the streets and the hospital. This shows how effective Kawamura can be at creating a surreal atmosphere when he wants to, but unfortunately he chooses to diffuse that cool dream-like state with intentional camp by having Harou ham it up, pulling faces and badly trying to disguise himself as a nurse.

I like to think I am pretty open to experimental filmmaking. I really enjoy and seek out films that are desperately bizarre and surreal. Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION (1981) is a mind-liquefyingly strange movie that manages to be a work of genius using the same techniques. Characters display extremes of emotion, a deliberate absence of music to heighten the unnerving scenes, long takes with minimal dialogue, out of the ordinary events go unexplained, picturesque visual imagery is held a little too long, etc. Here the problem is probably due more to my culture than anything else. The strangeness in THE LAST FRANKENSTEIN is quintessentially Japanese, which is fine until you send in the clowns. The Japanese, due to centuries of cultural demands for appropriate public behavior, embrace comedy that involves extreme reactions, extreme facial expressions, social faux pas and lots and lots of screaming. Oh, and slapstick comedy is always popular. Is there anything funnier than hunchback getting kicked in the nuts? Oh and yes, for the record, I do realize the Italians famously beat them to the…erm… punch (kick?) in Umberto Lenzi’s ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976), but that was just one ill-advised moment out of a solid film and this is one lame gag out of a movie filled with as many lame gags as interesting concepts. For instance, Aleo’s wife is a mentally retarded cripple who loudly slurps soup at the dinner table (yes, this is played for laughs). More hilarity ensues when a fly lands on her forehead and Aleo swats it with a riding crop, causing her to pull a face and scream loudly for what is seconds, but seems like minutes. Funny stuff right? Or how about the hunchback (with a two foot-tall hump) who cackles maniacally screams things like “buenos noches” and gets into a pro-wrestling style fight with the “superman”?

The wacky comedy is pretty much the nail in the coffin for this one, for me anyway. Someone like Kiyoshi Kurosawa could have taken that same script, stripped the comedy out of it and turned it into a brilliant piece of hauntingly surreal cinema. Instead we have a scatter-gun approach that throws out a mess of sophisticated ideas, interspersed with unsophisticated comedy that sort of rambles along until it hits a wall. This is the first, last and only (so far) film from Takeshi Kawamura and while I can’t say I’d be interested in watching the film again, if he made something else, I’d probably have to check it out. In spite of the folks you see ranting about this being the second coming, that, I'm afraid, is about as much of a recommendation as it is going to get out of me.

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