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November 22, 2011


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Nihon bundan: Heru doraiba
Yoshihiro Nishimura - 2011
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

I'm not totally sure how to critically approach Helldriver. It's the kind of film that's designed to function as entertainment. There are elements of satire, but otherwise no identifiable message. This is the kind of film that a lot of serious film critics would probably dismiss as a genre film that panders to the fans. To a certain extent, these critics would not be wrong. And while a film like Helldriver is made primarily for an audience much younger than myself, I think my years, decades really, of filmgoing and interest in film history, brings a different kind of perspective.

Consider that these films produced by the Japanese company, Sushi Typhoon, are made by young, or relatively young filmmakers, in conjunction with the venerable Nikkatsu Studios. In the past couple of years, Criterion, primarily through their budget subsidiary, Eclipse, has released several Nikkatsu productions from the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s. These were primarily modestly budgeted films by younger filmmakers, with young actors, for an audience of teens and young adults. These films were usually ignored by the likes of Donald Richie, and only rarely imported, primarily for the exploitation market. Maybe it will take a few years to give Helldriver the kind of consideration now given to a film like A Colt is My Passport or The Warped Ones.

Yoshimura's film looks like he took his favorite bits from George Romero, Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, and tossed them into a mixmaster. High school girl Kika has a hard enough time dealing with a mother and uncle who are serial killer cannibals, but some fireball from outer space has turned them into seemingly indestructible zombies. Even worse, a spray of ash has caused six million people in northern Japan to also become mutant zombies. A wall separates the two parts of Japan, while the government tries to come up with a solution. Kika's mother, who apparently never had much in the way of maternal instincts while human, rips Kika's heart out. Kika manages to live anyways, becoming part cyborg and all zombie hunter.

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Nothing is too excessive as far as Yoshimura is concerned. There's an overabundance of sprays of blood, lopped off limbs, and exploding heads. At one point, there's a rain of zombie heads flying towards the small band of zombie hunters. A giant creature composed of zombie parts made me think of something imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Additionally, there is a speeding car made of reassembled zombie parts. As in such films as Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, there are hybrid creatures, zombies with guns and swords for appendages. And maybe I'm inured to the blood, guts and gore, but nothing was particularly shocking or disturbing. One might look at Helldriver as the cinematic equivalent of a series of gross out jokes.

Then again, one could also ignore some narrative elements, and view Helldriver as a kind of action painting done with high definition video. It's not only sprinkling of red across the screen. Yoshimura plays with color, with dollops of day-glo colors in almost monochrome scenes, such as in the beginning with a character dressed from head to toe in black, save for his bright red gloves. The occasional creative bursts of color suggest that given the opportunity and inclination, Yoshimura is capable of visual invention beyond the use of body parts.

The five foot, seven inch, lean and full lipped Yumiko Hara has only appeared in two films to the best of my knowledge. She carries the film as Kika, convincingly playing someone a few years younger, and capable of knowing her way around a chainsaw. The better known star in Helldriver is Eihi Shiina, best known as the girlfriend from Hell in Audition, as one mean mother here. One of the DVD supplements is about the launch of Sushi Typhoon in Japan. No matter what one might think of the movies, the enthusiasm of the filmmakers and actors is, well, infectious.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 22, 2011 08:24 AM