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Far East Extreme: Meatball Machine – an ideal gift for the horror gourmet!

Monday, November 25, 2019 | Opinion

Hello and good day, folks! I’ve been wanting to talk about this one for a while; today we’re going to discuss 2005’s Meatball Machine! Meatball Machine belongs to a special offshoot of Japanese body horror, one which contains plenty of medical imagery and often grotesque combinations of man and machine. This is especially poignant for a country like Japan, which is known for its high tech gadgetry and giant, shimmering metropolises like Tokyo. However, if you are looking for an intelligent satire on technologically driven society, I’ll tell you right now that Meatball Machine is not that film; what we have instead is a mashup of anime action hero tropes with disgusting and extreme horror stylings from the writer of Versus. All in all, a bloody good time!

If one word could be used to explain Meatball Machine, it would be “expediency.” From minute one of this movie, the viewer is immediately treated to a battle between human/machine hybrids called “necroborgs,” who are reminiscent of Power Rangers villains with a new gory coat of paint. These eyeless freaks kill and maim one another with a variety of weaponry, lasers, and in classic Japanese fashion, tentacles. Long story short, nearly all the necroborgs die (including one who gets chopped in half!), but one escapes into society, which brings us to our main plot.

Yoji Muraishi (played by Issey Takahashi) is a loner who works at a machine shop, and is frequently tormented by his boss and his underlings for his passive nature. In his spare time, Yoji fantasizes about fellow co-worker Sachiko (played by Aoba Kawai). Yoji is the absolute classic manga wimp in every sense — a pathetically inert fellow who can barely string together a complete sentence, let alone “get the girl and save the day” even though by the end of the story they always manage to do so. This hostility Yoji faces in his life is amplified by the setting: typical of this subgenre of films, the magical techno-wonderland of Tokyo is shown to be a glorified junkyard: characters live in filth and squalor, and everything has the look of something held together with toothpicks and chewing gum. This is in keeping with the works of Shinya Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara: an industrial hell. It is in this environment that boy finally meets girl, but their happiness is short-lived when Sachiko is possessed by one of the necroborg parasites in a brutal scene. Here we learn that necroborgs are not just robot people; they are hosts for alien parasites that move and control their necroborg like you’d expect from a mecha anime. These Eraserhead baby lookalike bug-puppets get a surprising amount of screen time in their human organ-cockpits, and are pretty funny the first few times you see them, although the shtick wears pretty thin by movie’s end.

“This hostility Yoji faces in his life is amplified by the setting: typical of this subgenre of films, the magical techno-wonderland of Tokyo is shown to be a glorified junkyard: characters live in filth and squalor, and everything has the look of something held together with toothpicks and chewing gum.”

And thus Yoji begins his quest to save the girl, with the “help” of a scientist and his “daughter” who may not be what they seem. The plot is overall pretty lightweight, but reasonably well acted. Thankfully, the action and gore is front and center where it should be. I’ve complained about half-assed blood and guts in some of the films covered here, but Meatball Machine more than makes up for it. Effects wizard Yoshihiro Nishimura’s (Tokyo Gore Police, The ABCs of Death) creations have a truly visceral sense to them; with each crunch and pop we get a plentiful spraying of blood, guts, organs, and vomit. When someone gets hurt, there are no clean breaks, instead we have jagged edges and bone fragments piercing skin and eyes being brutally gouged out. The organs are suitably gooey and have real weight to them, and even the least squeamish among us are suggested not to snack too heavily while viewing this film. I still don’t think anything quite compares to Peter Jackson’s Braindead, but this movie does belong in that same conversation. The bloodshed is purposely over the top, and like Jackson’s pre-Rings work, adds a bit of badly needed levity to the proceedings. Despite the horrific appearance of this movie, it is somewhat of a relief to know it doesn’t take itself so seriously. Every bone crunch, pop, and shloop is heard in great fidelity. These sound effects guys deserve a raise, even though the same can’t be said of the soundtrack. Despite aping classic films like Tetsuo the Iron Man, the generic tunes on display here have nothing on Chu Ishikawa’s best.

However, by far the most significant problem of this film lies in its pacing. Meatball Machine clocks in at a breezy 90 minutes, and certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it sacrifices a lot of plot for the sake of a manga-esque boss fight with the big bad at the end. Typically in this kind of film, the unlikely hero has to endure challenges and grow to become the person who can save the day. Here however, we get a certain physical transformation, and then Yoji immediately goes to fight the bad guys. This pathetic sniveling wimp is still that same wimp, just heavily armed. Other plot and characterization goes out the window; most notably the character of Michino, played by none other than the voice actress Ayano Yamamoto (Super Sonico), who ironically never utters a line of dialogue in the film! This is all sacrificed for the grandiose “final battle,” an extravagant if overlong special effects affair reminiscent of a video game boss fight. Do you remember those Dragon Ball Z episodes where two characters fight it out for 30 minutes straight because both are near invincible? That’s what you get here. It’s fun, sure; and even features saws, machetes, piston hands and the one and only blood cannon! I never knew this about myself before viewing this film, but I really love blood cannons. Despite its epicenes, it is so reliant on genre archetypes that it completely lacks tension; you know the good guys will win at the end because we’ve all seen this a billion times already. Luckily, the hilarious epilogue (featuring those darned aliens!) gives us a great campy note to end on.

Meatball Machine is a great looking and hilarious film, but it’s also very lightweight – what you see is what you get. Other than its visual flair there’s really not much to it. Despite this the film, when viewed in its proper context, is clearly a successful one.

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.