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Meatball Machine
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by Jay Seaver

"I'll take a meatball sandwich over a parasitic space slug any day, though."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's the old, old, story. Boy meets girl after admiring her from afar. Girl is attacked by an alien parasite which makes her a gladiatorial cyborg. Boy loses girl. Boy meets other girl and her mad scientist father, boy is attacked by alien parasite but retains mind. Boy and girl fight to the death. How many times do we need to see the same ideas recycled before Hollywood and Tokyo come up with something new?

All kidding aside, Meatball Machine is the second take on the material; filmmaker Jun'ichi Yamamoto made a 1999 short with the same name and concept. For the feature version, he's teamed with two notable names in Japan's recent popcorn movie boom: Writer Jun'ya Kato worked on the screenplay for Death Trance ; co-director Yudai Yamaguchi directed Battlefield Baseball and the Cromartie High School live-action movie and also worked on Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus and Alive. Their work has on occasion been uneven, but just as often impressive; with Meatball Machine, they appear to be having fun making the best low-budget gore movie that they can.

The premise of the film posits aliens among us on Earth, here not for conquest but combat with each other, winner eating the loser. This causes problems for us not just because of the damage their techno-organic weapons do, but because these slug like things wield them by bonding to a human being, taking over their nervous systems and converting them into "necroborgs" (think Star Trek's Borg with bulkier armor and arms that can shape-shift into a variety of weapons). After one such fight, blue-collar worker Yoji (Issei Takahashi) finds a seemingly-inert pod that looks like a giant metal beetle and stows it in his closet for later tinkering while he nurses his crush on Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), the prettiest girl working at the day-care center next door. His first date with her has a bad end, though. Two, actually - first he gets squeamish about the scars and burns she exhibits from an abusive childhood, and the pod decides she would make an good host.

Those coming for a spot of gore won't be disappointed; though they're capable of morphing into guns and flamethrowers, the necroborgs seem to prefer sharp objects, especially things in the saw family. Fights between them are bloody affairs, with limbs lost and gore spurting until the victor can reach into a fleshy pouch, pull out a squishy parasite, and sink its host's teeth into it. The conversion process is just as nasty, as the metal pod penetrates its victim's flesh and injects the slug into the body. It also makes a few upgrades, in particular replacing the eyes with new metallic models (with drills on the back used to anchor them in the eye sockets). The squeamish would probably be well-advised to avoid this movie.

It is a little more than just a grotesquerie vector, though - the writer and directors give their cast a little room to create a love story, and the actors respond with something that feels a little more genuine than the usual (supposed) emotional underpinnings for these movies. The action that puts Yoji and Sachiko together is a little reminiscent of Train Man (normally-introverted boy defends elegant girl from harassers), but it works because the guilt Yoji feels is twofold: Obviously, it's the thing that was in his closet that took Sachiko, but he can't totally be blamed for that. Recoiling from her scars, however, was a failing on his part, and he spends the rest of the movie more or less trying to prove that the way she has been mutilated on the outside doesn't change how much he likes the sweet girl within. Sure, that mutilated outside initially ignores him and later tries to kill him, but he's got faith that there's still a sweet girl underneath all that mess. After all, as pretty as the scientist's daughter (Ayano Yamamoto) turns out to be, she's almost literally hollow. This isn't exactly stuff generations of literature majors will study, but it works, and Issei Takahashi deserves credit for getting it across when he's wrapped in a lot of prosthetics.

The necroborgs are realized by special effects man Yoshiro Nishimura, who does a nice job encasing the cast in make-up and bulky prosthetics. They don't look nearly as polished as a big Hollywood production, but I liked the bulk; it feels like something built with available materials and biomass. This stuff looks like it takes a toll on the body, and it's nice to see a change from the sleek black leather. The design work is by Keita Amemiya, and it's an enjoyably gross combination of organic decay and cold metal. It's not perfect - the "internal" shots of the parasites in their sacs don't tell us a lot and don't look that cool, either. Still, for the most part the necroborgs have a low-tech vibe to them that works.

Compared to the other movies Yamaguchi and Kato have worked on, Meatball Machine has familiar enthusiasm but not nearly as much energy. Part of that may be the low budget; there's a noteworthy lack of extras on-set, and the film's only "wow, that's some nifty-looking FX" moment is at the very end, in an epilogue. They also don't have anyone in the cast with the action skills of Tak Sakaguchi (or, heck, Sakaguchi's acting skills). They do do a good job of getting the most out of what they've got, though.

The host introducing the film described it as being in the "not for everyone" genre, and I agree with that assessment. Most of the people I describe it to are turned off by the description and I could see many of the others unimpressed by the low budget. It's a good midnight movie, though, putting a serviceable story to its gore without pretending to be more than it is.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14141&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/04/06 06:06:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Hole in the Head Film Festival For more in the 2006 Hole in the Head Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/09/06 Mansi Dido Remarkable. I enjoyed my tokoroten even more whilst watching this! 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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