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Sushi Typhoon and the New Wave of Japanese Splatter Films

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

The last decade has seen a colorful and extremely bloody explosion in Japanese gore cinema, with a new wave of splatter serving up all manner of bizarre and gruesome treats, combining horror with insane comedy, action, and even twisted romance. Although Japan has always had a reputation amongst cult and exploitation fans for over-the-top madness, these new films have managed something approaching mainstream success, carving out a real niche on both the domestic and international scenes. This has been seen in the widespread domination achieved by the likes of The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, with directors and special effects experts Iguchi Noboru and Nishimura Yoshihiro rapidly becoming legendary names. With the formation of the Nikkatsu-owned Sushi Typhoon production company in 2010 giving the genre a further boost, Japanese splatter has continued its meteoric rise, with an ever increasing number of bad taste hits painting the screen redder and redder, and with flying body parts and viscera steadily taking over from the usual long-haired vengeful ghosts.

Early Films and Influences

Japanese cinema has a long tradition of surreal and blood-drenched horror, whose influences can clearly be seen in this new wave of splatter. One key film which has undoubtedly guided the country's horror output over the last few decades, as well as having an impact on the genre worldwide is Nakagawa Nobuo's 1960 classic Jigoku (released in the West under a variety of other titles including Japanese Hell and The Sinners of Hell). Often credited as one of the very first gore films, and certainly one of the first to make extensive use of special effects, Jigoku makes for surprising and nightmarish viewing even today, showing the kind of incredible creativity and disconnection with reality that is very much at the heart of the modern form.

Of equal importance is Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 masterpiece House, a truly hallucinogenic effort which almost defies description. Revolving around a group of schoolgirls dealing with spirits and a demonic cat in an old country mansion, the film brings together a vast array of effects and techniques to create a dizzyingly imaginative visual onslaught, the likes of which has still never really been equaled. The early films of Tsukamoto Shinya also played a role in forming the new gore aesthetic, in particular Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989 and its 1992 sequel Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer, which dealt with bizarre mutation and body modification, their protagonists changing into half man, half machine monsters.

Extreme horror cinema found a home in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s, though with many films taking a more sadistic approach, as can be seen in the Guinea Pig, All Night Long, and Entrails series, as well as in Western influenced gorefests like Evil Dead Trap. Although creatively grotesque and showing a focus on special effects, such films were for the most part characterized by a determined nastiness and nihilism rather than the kind of wacky bad taste which modern Japanese splatter would come to be so well known for.

This began to change with the coming of the new millennium, when Japanese horror underwent something of a mini-boom in the zombie subgenre, resulting in a number of over-the-top and gory, though essentially fun films. 2000 was a banner year in this respect, with Ryuhei Kitamura's action and gore packed Versus crucially finding huge international success, along with similarly themed efforts Junk, Wild Zero, and Stacy. Combining themes instantly recognizable to both Western and Japanese viewers with over the Eastern excess, these films arguably paved the way for the coming splatter storm, as did the growing popularity of director Miike Takashi, whose reputation for off-the-wall, almost avant-garde carnage had seen controversial outings like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q finding a very receptive audience overseas.

Bloody Beginnings: Iguchi Noboru and Nishimura Yoshihiro

Although it's hard to pin down one pioneering film which jumpstarted the new wave of Japanese splatter, Meatball Machine is generally recognized as being one of the first to epitomize the new marriage between extreme gore and crazed creativity. Released in 2005, the film was co-directed by Yamaguchi YudaiM (also responsible for another early example of the form in Battlefield Baseball, as well as other more recent horror outings such as Tamami: The Baby's Curse) and Yamamoto Junichi, the film has all the hallmarks which fans would come to know and love, with alien parasites latching onto human hosts, transforming them into biomechanical monsters and using them for bloody pitched battles - while at the same time featuring a heartfelt romance between two of the unfortunate victims.

The film's success was in no small part due to its awesome special effects and makeup work by one Nishimura Yoshihiro, whose immense talents have resulted in him being referred to by some as "the Tom Savini of Japan". Born in 1967 and influenced by the works of Salvador Dali and horror manga rather than other films, Nishimura burst onto the scene in 1995 with the independently funded hour-long film Anatomia Extinction, which won the Special Jury Award at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. Set in the near future and following a man mutating into a murderous horror, the film was an obvious nod to Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, and later served as the basis for the director's landmark hit Tokyo Gore Police.

Recognized for his special effects mastery, Nishimura went on to work with a number of genre directors including Sono Sion, whom he teamed with on his superb Suicide Club, Noriko's Dinner Table, and Strange Circus. In 2003, he joined forces with another key figure in the emerging new wave of Japanese splatter, writer director Iguchi Noboru, providing effects for his peculiar horror comedy romance A Larva to Love, depicting the relationship between a boy, a girl,and a parasite. Born in 1969, Iguchi began his career in the AV (Adult Video) industry, directing a long list of films in a variety of porno genres that frequently featured top AV idol stars. At the same time, he managed a few horror outings, such as the award winning Kurushime-san in 1997, apparently inspired by some of the ghost houses and shows he had visited as a child.

Iguchi largely moved on from AV in 2006 with Sukeban Boy, the oddball tale of a boy with a girlish face (played by AV star Asami, who would work frequently with Iguchi in the future), who is enrolled at an all-girl school, resulting in much nudity, gore, and assorted weirdness. With makeup work from Nishimura Yoshihiro, the film was an incredibly eccentric affair, looking forward to the kind of madness that he would bring to the genre.

Following the relative accomplishments of Meatball Machine, the next couple of years saw a marked increase in outlandish Japanese exploitation and horror cinema, combining gore, comedy, horror and more to varying degrees of effectiveness, the zombie theme still proving a big draw. With the growing hunger for such fare from cult film fans around the world, many of these have since earned themselves surprisingly wide international releases, including Zombie Self-Defense Force, Attack Girls - Swim Team Versus the Undead, Cruel Restaurant, High School Girl Rika: Zombie Hunter, and OneChanbara to name but a few.

The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police

2008 was the year in which the dam really burst, sending waves of fake blood cascading onto audiences around the world. The Machine Girl arrived first, directed by Iguchi Noboru and with effects work by Nishimura Yoshihiro, co-funded by American video company Tokyo Shock, a fact which underlined the increasingly Western demand for Japanese splatter. Originally conceived by Iguchi as a revenge tale called "One Armed Big Busty Girl", the film starred gravure model Yashiro Minase as the titular schoolgirl who loses her arm and younger brother to evil yakuza. Given a replacement machine gun arm by the parents of her brother's similarly murdered best friend, she heads off on a crusade of ultra-violent vengeance. Also featuring AV stars Asami and Honoka, the film became an instant hit with fans of extreme cinema, delivering exactly as promised by piling on the action, gore and craziness, Nishimura's outstanding special effects performing far beyond the expectations of the low budget.

Nishimura himself took up the directorial reins in the same year with Tokyo Gore Police, again co-funded by Tokyo Shock. Using Anatomia Extinction as a jumping off point and with Eihi Shiina, the unforgettable star of Miike Takashi's Audition in the lead, the film was set in a Tokyo of the future, ruled over by the privatized police force, pitted against the mysterious Key Man, a demented scientist with the power to mutate human beings into biomechanical killing machines called Engineers who sprout bizarre fleshy weapons when wounded. Unbelievably bloody, the film notched up the splatter quotient of The Machine Girl to even greater and wilder heights, with Nishimura working in a jaw-dropping parade of freakish and perverse creations, and what the film perhaps lacked in plot, it more than made up for with over-the-top splatter and set pieces, setting a new standard for the genre. Despite its extreme brutality and near non-stop butchery, the film also benefited from a marked vein of satirical humor, with some hilarious fake commercials directed by Iguchi, making for a unique viewing experience that was as fun as it was intensely visceral.

Both The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police met with an extremely enthusiastic response from exploitation fans at home and overseas, wowing audiences at genre festivals and finding instant cult status and pop culture success. With the popularity of Japanese splatter at an all-time high, the result was a flood of similar titles hitting the market, with Nishimura working on a huge number of projects over the next few years, including Tsujimoto Takanori's Hard Revenge Milly, the AV idol Kishi Aino-starring Samurai Princess with Tokyo Gore Police screenwriter Kaji Kengo, and Go Ohara's Gothic & Lolita Psycho.

After reteaming with Iguchi Noboru for the strange short Shyness Machine Girl, shot for inclusion on the DVD release of The Machine Girl, he returned to the director's chair with the excellently-titled Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, which he co-helmed with Tomomatsu Naoyuki (Zombie Self-Defense Force), with action choreography from Sakaguchi Tak of Versus fame. Based on the manga by Uchida Shungiku, the film was a typically off-the-wall mixture of teen romance, high school angst, mad science, and of course, non-stop carnage, and had a considerable cast of eye-candy headed by gravure idol Kawamura Yukie (Carved 2) and Otoguro Eri, the bikini-clad zombie slayer from OneChanbara. Although revolving around a plot that saw the two girls facing off against each other to win the heart (possibly quite literally) of Saitoh Takumi of Boys Love, the film's main focus was as usual Nishimura's astounding special effects work, which saw him truly outdo himself in terms of explosive bad taste fun, marking it as another hit for the director, going down particularly well at international genre festivals.

2009 was also a good year for Iguchi Noboru, who helmed the extraordinary and frankly insane RoboGeisha, a film with a near indescribable plot that threw together mechanical geisha assassins in sexy costumes, giant robots, gallons of blood, and far too much else to mention here, with amazing effects work again from Nishimura. As usual, Iguchi went for an attractive female lead, this time in the shapely form of gravure idol Kiguchi Aya, with support from Hasebe Hitomi, Ikuta Etsuko, Kumakiri Asami, Nakahara Shoko, and Asami. Helped by a hilarious trailer that attracted a huge amount of interest online the film was taken to heart by fans as another cult favorite for the director.

The Coming of Sushi Typhoon

In 2010 the new wave of Japanese splatter cinema truly came of age with the formation of the Sushi Typhoon production company. An offshoot of Nikkatsu Corporation, one of the longest serving and most respected Japanese film studios, Sushi Typhoon was created with the express aim of providing extreme, bad taste entertainment for audiences at home and abroad. Producer Chiba Yoshinori pulled together a mightily impressive roster of directors: Iguchi Noboru, Nishimura Yoshihiro, Chiba Seiji, Shimomura Yuji, Sakaguchi Tak, Yamaguchi Yudai, Kazuno Tsuyoshi, Takahashi Yoshiki, Sono Sion, and Miike Takashi.

The first Sushi Typhoon release was Alien vs. Ninja from director Chiba Seiji, a film which as the title suggested, pitted two unlikely enemies against each other in a gory battle to the death. The film was a fittingly wild affair, with Chiba backed by action choreographers Yuji Shimomura (who had previously worked on Versus, Shinobi, and Death Trance) and Kensuke Sonomura (The Machine Girl, Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle), who combined their talents to produce an entertaining slice of imaginative, no holds barred schlock that more than lived up to its charmingly ridiculous title.

The studio's second release, Mutant Girls Squad, was very much a banner affair for the genre, bringing together Iguchi Noboru, Nishimura Yoshihiro, and Sakaguchi Tak as co-directors in what was effectively a demented splatter take on the X-Men franchise, following a group of teens whose bodies transform into tools of mass murder. Unsurprisingly, given the talents and tastes of the three, the film pushed the boundaries of the form yet further, delighting fans with its wacked-out orgy of silliness and slaughter.

As well as doing the special effects for the AV starlet vehicle Horny House of Horror, in 2010 Nishimura also directed Helldriver for Sushi Typhoon, his first outing as a solo helmer since Tokyo Gore Police. The film delivered exactly as hoped, with the director again going for a post-apocalyptic setting, Japan devastated by an ash cloud which has resulted in half the country being sealed off, its inhabitants transformed into zombies with strange antler like growths protruding from their foreheads. Yumiko Hara stars as the nation's only hope, a high school girl with a chainsaw arm powered by an artificial heart who is sent along with a bunch of misfit zombie hunters into the wasteland of Zombieworld to try and kill the evil queen behind the plague (Eihi Shiina). An incredible amount of deranged fun, the film basically strings together a series of increasingly over-the-top set pieces, making for perhaps his bloodiest outing yet, packing in a breathtaking amount of gore and misused body parts. The film also saw Nishimura improving as a director, as although tangential and senseless, the film benefited from a faster pace and tighter feel than most of his other more scattershot efforts.

Sushi Typhoon's other 2010 release dealt with murder and madness of a slightly less surreal, though no less lunatic kind. Directed by genius auteur Sono Sion, following up on his four-hour masterpiece Love Exposure, Cold Fish was a serial killer tale based on a real-life incident and revolving around the unlikely topic of tropical fish sellers, starring Mitsuru Fukikoshi (Love Exposure), Megumi Kagurazaka (13 Assassins), Hikari Kajiwara, and popular comedian Denden. With effects from Nishimura Yoshihiro and action choreography from Sakaguchi Tak, the film was a philosophically excessive exploration of gender roles and the deterioration of the family unit, played out in Sono's usual psychotic, darkly amusing style, filled with shocking sex and violence and wild directorial touches. A critical and popular hit at international festivals and in Europe in particular, the film represented somewhat of a more respectable cult success for Sushi Typhoon, Sono's name attracting an audience beyond the usual trash and gore fans.

The Continuing Domination of Japanese Splatter

The last year has seen Sushi Typhoon continuing to confirm its position as the number one purveyor of splatter and crazed gore, not only from Japan, but indeed from anywhere in the world. Building upon its success, the studio produced its biggest budget film to date with Karate-Robo Zaborgar from Iguchi Noboru, based upon the popular 1970s television series Denjin Zaborger which followed a secret agent battling a sinister secret society and a variety of monsters with the aid of his trusty transforming robot motorbike. Every bit as absurd as its premise suggests, the film was nevertheless a marked departure for Iguchi and the studio, eschewing the usual nudity and gore in favor of something a touch more accessible. Thankfully, this didn't result in a watering down of the director's eccentric vision, as the film certainly managed to match the delirious joy of his bloodier outings, and as a result of Iguchi having a much bigger budget to play with was if anything even more unhinged.

More in-keeping with Sushi Typhoon's usual bad taste manifesto was Yakuza Weapon, co-directed by Sakaguchi Tak and Yamaguchi Yudai and based on a manga by Cutie Honey and Getter Robot creator Ishikawa Ken, with special effects as ever by the impossibly prolific Nishimura. The berserk plot follows Sakaguchi as yakuza mercenary Shozo who returns from the jungles of South America to find his gang boss father murdered by his right hand man Kurawaki (Shingo Tsurumi, also in Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive), who has now seized control of the clan for himself. Shozo swears revenge, and though he loses an arm and a leg in an explosive battle with Kurawaki, his missing limbs are quickly replaced with a M61 Vulcan cannon and a rocket launcher, leading to even more homicidal havoc. A kinetic, even more violent and cartoonish version of The Machine Girl with a male protagonist, the film was arguably one of the studio's most free-spirited gorefests yet, boosted by some superb action choreography and solid directorial work.

Sushi Typhoon looks set to continue its admirable dedication to bringing Japanese splatter to its growing army of fans around the world with several soon to be released new genre films, the first of which being Deadball. Headlined by Sakaguchi Tak and directed by Yamaguchi Yudai, the film is a return to the duo's earlier 2003 effort Battlefield Baseball. Again using the fun concept of turning the sport into an ultra-violent battle, the film sees Sakaguchi as a pitcher with a deadly arm, leading his reformatory mob against a girls' school team (charmingly called the Psycho Butcher Girls) who happen to be trained by a Western Neo-Nazi. Also due to arrive shortly is Iguchi Noboru's wonderfully titled Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, a delightful tale of colon-invading parasites who, thanks to the special effects of Nishimura Yoshihiro, transform their hosts into grotesque puppets. As well as gore, the film reportedly shows a remarkable focus on bodily functions, gleefully attacking notions of good taste and decency from a new, even wackier angle.

With these, along with several other upcoming projects including Iguchi's Tomie: Unlimited, plus his involvement with the US series The ABCs of Death, which also features Nishimura Yoshihiro and Yamaguchi Yudai on its roster, the profile of Japanese gore and splatter cinema is only set to rise over the coming years. Fans can certainly look forward to all kinds of surreal, blood-soaked mayhem, and if success brings bigger budgets, then the carnage will only be limited to the imaginations of the creatively twisted minds involved.

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Published December 8, 2011

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