There’s something that the cinematic triumphs share with the more peculiar films; you usually have an idea of how things are going within the first few frames. For one, it’s a compliment to setting the tone or a visual style to enrapture. For others, as is the case of Meatball Machine, it’s a sign of the confusing, morbid, disjointed, yet oddly-fascinating things to come.
A lone man contemplates his life as he gazes at a noose, a suicide note laying by the floor. Just as his decision is clear, he is assaulted and killed in a twisted morose irony. The killer? A parasitic alien which distorts the human form with mechanical growths into a Necroborg. Their aim – to fight one another for supremacy inside their now automated hosts. This gentleman’s suicide plays no part in the story, and instead, directors Yudai Yamaguchi and Jun’ichi Yamamoto push focus onto a shy factory worker and his shy adoration for his neighbour as they fall in love, but in the end, must kill the other.
Conceptually, the story of two lovers destined to feud and wipe one another from existence, while not entirely new, is handled with a refreshing sense of brutality with no loopholes or quick fixes. As the parasites are drawn towards negative emotion, they toy with perceptions of how destructive envy, self-loathing and insecurities can be on a flowering relationship. Issey Takahashi and Aoba Kawai have a draw, though principally through Kawai’s performance, which at times goes well beyond the boundaries of Meatball Machine and into the genres of genuine melodrama as the film takes its ugliest turns.
It all plays into the idea of a grotesque subconscious emerging as a physical monstrosity and works perfectly as a set-up for the robotic coldness of the Necroborgs. Further character issues come with Takahashi’s transition, where his strength of resistance and evolution into a competent fighter also comes with a sense of embracing patriarchal stereotypes and excessive masculinity, a familiar trope in this genre of films.
To dredge up the complexities and nuances of both child and sexual abuse, and in the very same scene depict an attempted eroticism of a young woman being molested and slaughtered by an alien life form is Meatball Machine’s hard swing and failure as it pushes the envelope too heavily. No matter the creative aesthetics of the creature design, the ‘insertion’ depiction is far from the uncomfortable but well-constructed depravities of Ridley Scott’s Alien and is a cheap sequence that usually lurks on the craven corners of the internet rather than a feature film.
A fan of FMV gaming? How about smashing Sentai/Power Rangers together with the Doom franchise? For its considerably enigmatic faults, Meatball Machine does have a few somewhat redeeming features. Its uniqueness (though still heavily borrowing from Tetsuo: The Iron Man) within its creature design and use of cartoonish gore. Inspirations from gaming giants litter the film in graphics and hammy performances from sub-plot star Tôru Tezuka. The designs of the aliens themselves swing wildly between blocky polygon to HD remaster. The control and puppetry of the parasites are enviable by even Del Toro, but come with a mixed bag of grungy villain-of-the-week Necroborgs with rubber saws and wobbling steel protrusions.
Sequences feel half-complete, clippings on the editing floor stitched in to extend the run-time to the ninety-minute mark. In a compendium of budding show reels, there’s a distracting over-saturation of scenes in an attempt to ramp-up the colour scaling. Instead of basking in murkier cityscapes, allowing the crimson violence to have a distinct impact, Meatball Machine has a ridiculous fascination with warping much of the camerawork with saturated effects and motion blur.
A hodge-podge with stamps of eighties post-apocalyptic shoot-’em-ups and other Japanese body-horror films, Meatball Machine isn’t the finished article. What the film achieves in design, B-movie tropes, and (let’s be frank) genuine curiosity, it loses in awkward cinematography with moments of tasteless abuse which are far uglier than any parasitic creature.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 12 Apr 2021