Thursday, November 1, 2012

Spine Tingling Tales vol. 1: Ichthyoid Rigor Mortis Exclusivis (Dead Sushi at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival 2012)

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ACT 1
On a day that was quickly bleeding into night, a raw chilI drifting through the air as a thinning crowd of traders and merchants scurried this way and that, I met with Db and we hastened to our destination: The Friars Club of Manhattan. Little did we know of its whereabouts, only its reputation for being a refuge for well known and infamous scoundrels. What forms of debauchery they engaged in over the years, aside from the well publicized ritual shaming celebrations referred to as metaphorical ‘roasts,’  was a matter cloaked in mystery. Our purpose for heading there was to investigate the presence of an annual gathering - one in which audiences encountered various expressions of comedy captured on film representing lands and cultures both near and abroad - and report on its proceedings. The event had been referred to publicly as the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival. We would not let an approaching storm or concealed location put us off our path.

Neither us having the pedigree to penetrate the high society institution ordinarily, we found our opportunity to enter via a lottery system. My affinity for cultural artifacts from the orient alerted me to the chance to gain access to one of these clandestine gatherings centered around viewing a film procured from Japan. Its title: Dead Sushi.

When we finally did discover the Friar Club’s entrance, up a majestic and somewhat rounded set of stairs and behind large brass-embossed doors, we steeled up our nerves and entered. All was quiet. A mild mannered emissary waited behind a stately reception desk. As I prepared to launch into a well-rehearsed speech on our qualifications, our irrefutable right to be there, any doubts to this effect were waved away. We would be granted access. However, one of the evening’s earlier screenings had not yet concluded. And once it did, there were...preparations yet to be made before we could take our seats.  Hearing no sort of revelry from anywhere on the grounds, our suspicions were raised. We decided to wait outside where, after some deliberation, we assured one another that we were on the right path. That we would not turn back from whatever was in store.

As others appeared and entered the stately structure, we decided it was time. We were ushered in, along with a small gathering of others, before ascending a maroon colored stairs, supported by a bannister of magnificent dark oak, until we came upon what would be touted as the screening room. It was rather unconventional. Some 12 to 16 elegant chairs were set up in rows. This room’s carpeting, walls, and decor bore no less of the darkness than the stairs we had just climbed. It was then that we realized we were to sit and view the film under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure’s portrait.
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But the real horror would reveal itself momentarily. For, before us was not a grand, panoramic canvas, but a slight portable tripod projector screen. As images became animated upon it, we realized we were faced with the nightmare of seekers of the true cinema everywhere: a digital projection. This would not be an experience in league with seeing The Master in 70 mm. I reminded myself that we were not seeking refinement. This was to be an exploration of a Japanese vision of horror, in its crudest and unpolished form. We would stay the course.

ACT 2: THE FILM

DEAD SUSHI tells the tale of Keiko, an aspiring sushi chef whose disappointment at her accomplished father’s constant criticism of her best efforts to follow in his footsteps leads her to run away from home. She comes upon a rickety inn that takes her on as a serving girl. Despite its reputation for top notch sushi, Keiko sees little more than amateurish techniques perpetrated by a charlatan. Yet, she is relegated to toiling away at demeaning chores. An unsavory individual lurking around the hotel grounds and the arrival of a corrupt chemical engineering company’s top executive and staff lead to an ever worsening state of mayhem.

There are some things you should know about director Iguchi Igunobu and his latest Frankenstein monster of a film.

1) He has an awareness that his sort of exploitation film’s main audience is an international one. What better subject to capture the fascination and excitement of viewers than Japan’s number 1 export, Sushi? Iguchi engages mischievously in this cross cultural exchange, at one point exposing viewers to a supposed “Japanese style kiss,” which involves a hilarious exchange of more than just saliva, putting viewers’ gag reflex to a true test. There is also a comedic riff on the legendary practice of eating sushi off of beautiful womens’ bodies. This also leads to audacious results.

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2) the director is fluent in the language of genres and assembles conventions with a mad scientist’s madcap glee. The movie takes on the elements of no less than three modes of popular horror films. You have zombie horror, as the reanimated delicacies are filled with a virus that, when transmitted to humans by a ferocious bite, reduce them to mindless, lumbering, vinegar-rice stuffed humanoids on the attack. In a few instances, like when the innkeeper’s wife (played by Asami) battles Keiko (Rina Takeda), they can also do kung-fu. Then there is the bloodthirsty serial killer mode. The creator of the virus decides to ingest it himself, thus transforming him into a human bodied fish headed hybrid. He then, naturally, grabs the nearest hatchet and set about on a path of beheading, and otherwise terrorizing Keiko and the rest of the Inn’s staff and guests. And, perhaps the most mind boggling to behold, swarming mutant invasion type horror, a la the frenzied mutated fish of the Piranha films. We get this as those mutated sushi rolls seem to spawn and multiply until a CGI rendered fleet of them swoop through the air decimating all in their path.    
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How Iguchi manages to weave all of these elements together is a wonder. And he actually does it at a calmer pace than one might expect. In fact, he is just as interested in widely practiced storytelling conventions and character types, sometimes quite cliche, as those slapstick fight sequences and blood spurting special effects he is more well known for. There is the focus on a character who is bound to follow in her father’s footsteps, yet cannot live up to his strict expectations, and so strikes off on her own. There is the wronged scientist, whose company has turned its back on him for doing his morally compromised work all too well. This of course leads him to unleash the malignant fruits of his research on them in return, and of course this turns into an epidemic that threatens a far bigger population than his initial target. And of course, Iguchi indulges one of the most tried and true tropes around: the love affair. The business minded innkeeper’s loyal wife has eyes for the resident sushi chef, who seduces her with his artistic flair and confident demeanor. These extra elements are numerous, sometimes slowing the proceedings down. But they make Iguchi’s film stand out from the growing hordes of straightforward nonstop splatter.    

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3) Another mark of distinction is the director’s decision to deal with a truly moving human story. Even through all of that gore. Keiko is no typical airhead. Played by Rina Takeda, who rose to genre acclaim for showing off her real life martial arts mettle in the film High Kick Girl, Keiko is driven to live up to her family name by excelling at the craft her father is famous for. She calls out the phonies and poseurs that play at understanding the true art of sushi making. She is an awkward loner who stands up for herself and says what she means, often putting her foot in her mouth when she is not smashing it against the jaw of one of the offensive company worker guests...or a murderous maguro (tuna) sushi. The film may be filled with sleazy characters and a less than progressive attitude toward women. Yes, the director’s infamous affinity for the tush, though less obviously celebrated than in his other recent film’s more blatantly titled Zombie Ass, is still prominently on display. But at heart, Igunobu is Igu-NOBLE, and the concern and reverence he has for his strong, well-meaning outcast protagonist shines through.   

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ACT 3
The film completed, we took stock of our belongings and made quickly for the exit. But not that quickly. Spying another floor atop an even more spiraling set of stairs, Db headed for it, compelled to fully explore this normally off limits domain. Drawings containing the seemingly innocent likeness of celebrities long past relevancy adorned the walls, concealing the essence of unimaginable tortured spirits. After satisfying our curiosity, we made our descent toward, bracing ourselves for whatever may stand between us and freedom.

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All signs pointed to a clear getaway. A few lingerers remained. And a different figure stood at the front post this time. His visage evoked a sense of timeworn traditions...and secrets...from a forgotten age. Ice blue blood ran through the veins that coursed through pallid white skin. At this moment, Db was struck by a missionary fervor, a condition often falling upon him after experiencing the hypnotic effects of unbridled, vivid cinema. He began imparting the name of Unseen Films passionately to this stone-faced figure, who I am not sure had anything to do with procuring the evening’s films. My attention was drawn more to his hands, ever hidden behind that enormous station. What may or may not be clutched in their grasp. A dagger? A meat cleaver? Not wanting to become the unwitting participants of whatever savage customary practices may be scheduled to follow, I paced restlessly by the entranceway.  The spell finally broken, Db backed away from that imperceptible sentry and joined me in pushing forth the heavy doors. Alas we emerged into the night air, surviving so that we may one day embark on yet another ill-advised adventure.

‘til then, this has been an UNSEEN FILMS Spine Tingling Tale!
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Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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