Toronto After Dark Film Festival: Japanxploitation

— by H.G. WATSON —

Exploitation films are, for me, in many ways often the most difficult films to review. They are, obviously, exploitative of whatever subject matter the filmmaker has chosen. Keeping that in mind, it’s pretty hard to come down on a film for being sexist, racist, or just plain bad when you know that’s exactly what the filmmaker intended. So I go into exploitation films with the lowest of expectations. I don’t worry too much about plot holes or crappy acting as long as I’m mildly entertained for an hour and half. That’s why when I find one that is stands up against other films-not just exploitation films mind you-I am genuinely happy. “Robogeisha” is one such find.

The plot of this Japanese film centre’s around two sisters. The eldest is a sought after geisha who cruelly mistreats her younger sister, a servant of the geisha house. Both sisters catch the eye of a wealthy industrialist who kidnaps them and enlists them in his geisha-cum-samurai army of assassins. Younger sister Yoshie turns out to have a natural knack for killing and maiming, which in turn reverses the roles of the two girls; Yoshie becomes the desired young geisha, while her sister is the maid plotting revenge. If you’ve made it this far through the review, you must realize by now that the plot reaches Monty Python levels of absurd. And that’s with skipping half of the other plot points, which include an underground group infiltrating the geisha lair and an evil plot to destroy Japan. On top of that, everyone in the film is constantly bursting weapons out of body parts that, frankly, should not have weapons at all.

How is it possible that this mess of a story somehow works? The answer lies in the fact that “Robogeisha” is so aware that it is a Japanese exploitation flick that it comes off as more of a satire of the subgenre than a true member of it. All the Japanese female sex symbols are there; nurses, schoolgirls, dominatrixes, and of course, geisha. But the film is constantly poking fun at them and using them as an ends to more action. One villain is dispatched because he gets distracted looking up a schoolgirl’s skirt. Another gets a katana blade in the face when he thinks he’s about to get lucky with a willing geisha; the blade pops out of her armpit as he’s trying to feel her up.

Satire isn’t simply reserved for Japanese sex symbols; in “Robogeisha” anything is fair game, including the Japanese fascination with robots small and large. In one of the final action set pieces our hero geisha faces off against the henchwomen of the main baddie; but they all are embarrassed when, to the audience’s chagrin, they discover that they have all installed katana swords in their bottoms. And in one scene that is destined to become a cult favourite Yoshie discovers her brand new robo-legs turn her into a geisha/tank and delivers my favourite line of the whole film, “I didn’t think I’d turn into a tank!”

Stylistically the film has a great, comic-book inspired look. The SFX is laughable (perhaps purposely so), but the filmmakers made up for it with tightly shot fight scenes and sets that looks like they used every crayon in the box to create them. “Robogeisha” provided more than mild entertainment; it was fun and campy. I had a grin plastered on my face the entire time.

The same can’t be said for the other Japanese flick that screened at Toronto After Dark on Monday night: “Alien vs. Ninja.” Calling it a feature film is a generous description since it looks like it was shot using a cell phone video camera. The plot is pretty neatly summed up in the title; ninja’s fight aliens and dispatch each other in a variety of gruesome ways.

The problems with this film begin right with the two title groups. The ninja’s look like they belong in a Japanese pop band, and the aliens are little more than costumed rip-off’s of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” creature that bleed what appears to be strawberry yogurt when maimed. All of that could have been forgiven had the film been in the least bit entertaining; unfortunately I found it dull, dull, dull. The comic relief character was hugely unlikable, and for a film that bills itself as an action film there was far too much exposition.

What I think “Alien vs. Ninja” got wrong was what “Robogeisha” got so very right. “Alien vs. Ninja” was trying, up until the dramatic ending, to be a film that was meant to be taken seriously. The result was a boring mess of a film with little entertainment value. Robogeisha, on the other hand, belongs in the category of films like “Black Dynamite”; it would be an utterly stupid exploitation film if it not for the fact that we know the filmmaker is doing it all with a wink and a grin.

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