Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Death Powder (1986)

(This write-up is based on the new fan subtitles for the film as found on Cinemageddon; the old Video Search of Miami ones are supposed to be even worse than usual from that source.)

Japan, in the near future of the near past. Kiyoshi (Takichi Inukai) and Noris (Rikako Murakami) are hired by a group of, well, whatever those guys are, called the Scar People to find and steal the female android Guernica (Mari Natsuki) who belongs to the luckless artist Harima (the film's director Shigeru Izumiya). As the film will explain much later in something that might be flashback or a drug-induced hallucination, Guernica was once gifted to the artist by her creator Dr. Loo (Kiyoshiro Imawano) to acquire the essence of humanity through his love and is now at the end of her four-year life-span. Said essence would be a valuable commodity to sell, it seems, and Harima does owe the Scar People money, so it's quite natural that they want Guernica.

Alas, Guernica is already dead when Kiyoshi and Noris arrive at Harima's hideout, and Harima is not willing to let them steal his dead lover away without a fight. In the ensuing struggle, the dead android infects Kiyoshi with something called Death Powder ("the power to create new life"), making him all melty and hallucinating a lot of backstory. Oh, and somehow he loses a hand, too.

Some time later, the Scar People themselves arrive to die in a shoot-out with Harima, Kiyoshi (who is possibly taking on parts of Guernica's personality; or not) and Noris. Later again, guys in hard hats arrive and die screaming in a mass of slimy stuff with eyes our protagonists have become.

Then, the slimy stuff turns into something humanoid. The End.

Death Powder is one of the number of weird, always cheap and short and often drifting into the direction of the abstract or trippily metaphorical Japanese movies made in the 80s and 90s that are often put together under the umbrella of Cyberpunk, although they don't always have much to do with the literary sub-genre.

What these films have in common is an admirable insistence on putting together a future scenario not out of expensive special effects they couldn't afford anyway, but out of the most scummy and dubious elements of their contemporary Japan. Also, they're usually batshit insane.

Where Western SF (or Japanese Cyberpunk manga and anime, for that matter) outside of Space Opera usually tries to pretend to be believable and scientifically sound, this Japanese variant is all about the feeling of disorientation, the strange dislocation that can set in when a film takes a dirty empty warehouse and just pretends it is a dirty empty warehouse of the near future. It's also about the sort of philosophical thoughts that might arise from drugs, youthful exuberance or badly digested apple pie.

Death Powder is as disorienting as they come. The first part of my plot synopsis above might sound relatively coherent, but the way the film presents it, with dialogue mostly conveyed through sub-titles although there obviously is on location sound, the use of heavily shaking hand-camera and counterintuitive editing, and lots of state-of-the-mid-80s-art video editing effects, makes the plot at times nearly incomprehensible. I suspect that most of what is shown to happen in the warehouse is a hallucination in the group mind of the Kiyoshi/Harima/Noris/Guernica blob creature (something akin to David Cronenberg's New Flesh), but I don't have the slightest idea how much of it or which parts exactly. In fact, I'm not even sure the thing the film shows in the end really is such a creature or does possess such a group mind - for all the film makes explicit, it might as well be someone's mutant grandmother coming for a visit and eating the hired help. It's pretty in a squamous way, anyway.

Clarity just isn't in Death Powder's field of interests. It's all about the floating trippiness and moments of cheap coolness (exploding heads! street samurai! eye-poking! whatever that other stuff is!) and the audience's attempts at making sense of it all. I see it as the 80s version of all these serious 60s attempts at reproducing drug experiences in film form, just with more leather, goo and gore.


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