Sushi Typhoon – Part 6: Helldriver

May 5, 2011

Nihon bundan: Heru doraibâ (Japan, 2010)

“Sayonara Japan!”

Yoshihiro Nishimura does not believe in budget limitations. Sushi Typhoon have him $200 000 and a two week filming schedule, Nishimura announced he’d be making the all time zombie epic. He named Romero’s satirical genre films as inspiration, and 8000 liters of blood as his personal contribution. A fitting follow up to his previous solo project Tokyo Gore Police, in other words.

It doesn’t take a genius to say Nishimura was basically trying the impossible. Preparations were extensive: the 3500 storyboards prepared by Nishimura speak for themselves. At filming site Nishimura seemingly broke his own records, completing close to 300 shots per day. In this hurry screenplay was left for lesser care.

The storyline is simple but fast paced. School girl Kika’s (Yumiko Hara) life is hell on earth. The sadistic mom Rikka (Eihi Shiina) beats her daughter, and eats the father’s legs in the lack of better things to do! One day an asteroid falls from sky and makes a hole in Rikka’s chest. Pissed off, she rips her daugher’s heart off and places it in her own chest. Kika is taken to medical care while half of Japan falls under zombie epidemic due to the ash from the asteroid. Mysteriously, Rikka, as the first victim, seems to have gained control of the zombie legions.

The storyline can now begin, although we haven’t quite reached the opening credits yet!

It’s obvious from the beginning Nishimura’s puns at politics and the Democratic Party Japan (human rights, etc.) are little more than gags. Nishimura wouldn’t have time for real satire even if he wanted to, as there’s more gore and action in Helldriver than one movie can take. The actual plot kicks off once Kika, now enhanced with iron chest and chainsaw sword, returns. It’s time to forget “human rights” and go behind the Great Wall (separating the “normal” and the “infected”) and kick mom’s ass. And kill a few creatures on the way.

For his entire career – the directorial efforts only counting for a fraction of it – Nishimura has worked on makeup effects. This is where Helldriver excels, too. It’s unbelievable how much care has been put into stylish zombie makeup despite the tight schedule. Aside clearly distinctive zombie designs there are other creatures all the way from spider zombies crawling in the frames. Not your most typical living deads, that is.

Nishimura’s zombies are flesh eaters with varying amount of brain damage. Some of them settle for dinner hunt, others engage in minor communication. This is not entirely satisfying, but at least better than parkour zombies seen in some other recent genre films. Nishimura’s zombies, with a few exceptions, don’t really run, which is a refreshing return to how zombies should be. The horns on their foreheads, used by Rikka to control their movements, is something Nishimura could have left out, though. Thankfully the anti-idea is not extensively used in the film.

As far as mood goes Helldriver is laidback but enjoyably trashy, with some over-enhanced and perhaps unnecessary color adjustment (leaning towards red and orange). Composer Koh Nakagawa’s easily recognizable tunes are mixed with rock and even waltz in a gore dance, a scene quite over-used by the director by now. Despite the goriness real mean violence, essential to zombie movies, can be found only in a few scenes.

One of Helldriver’s problems is over-packing. Nishimura’s got tons of interesting ideas, with too little time to properly exploit them on screen. It makes a lot of fun, but strange characters and weapons are brought in and thrown out before full use of them has been taken. Atmospheric build ups are missing, and action scenes seem rushed. Occasionally humor and gags become too dominating.

The second major gripe is the extensive use of CGI, which goes against genre logic. Nishimura’s films have drawn large following due to amazing old school special effects work. Here much of this is visible here, but he also does too many things with computer generated images. CGI blood is mixed with real ketchup, which leads into divided rather than multiplied excitement.

Now, it must be stated that this review is based on the 105 minute International Version. The original cut is 10-15 minutes longer, and even features nasty handmade gore shots not seen in the shorter version. The full version premiered at the Fantastic Fest in Texas, but was taken back to editing table (due to?) after abysmal feedback. Sushi Typhoon’s official US face Marc Walcow later admitted having learnt his lesson: Nishimura films are not to be screened for “Iron Man 3 audience”. The same edit later opened for enthusiastic audience in New York, with people wondering how anyone would want to miss even a second of it.

With one of the film’s main problems being the hectic pacing, it’s easy to imagine the original cut being superior. It no doubt still suffers from CGI problems, but most likely comes with vital bits to enhance the overall experience. Nishimura also stated many fan favorite actors get more screen time in the long version. Even in the 105 minute cut one can spot the regulars from Takashi Shimizu to Cay Izumi and even Marc Walcow as the insane doctor.

Helldriver was to be Nishimura’s best movie. It is not. The amount of CGI and the lack of slower atmospheric parts hurt the film. Focus on vehicles is also relatively sparse considering the film’s title. However, the review being based on the shorter cut it would feel untimely to lay final judgment right yet. Besides, all the criticism is to be seen against the enormous potential of the film, and Nishimura’s amazing track record. Even as an “incomplete version” Helldriver is a hellava fun ride. It’s an epic trash movie that, despite its problems, doesn’t get boring for a second.

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