It’s kind of incredible that the Crypt of Curiosities has gone on so long before I wrote about Japanese Cyberpunk. As longtime readers of the column (or anyone who has glanced at my Twitter feed) knows, some of my absolute favorite things in the world are sci-fi, goopy monsters, body horror, and wild underground Asian cinema. Naturally, Japanese Cyberpunk’s often low-budget, always boundary-pushing, maverick sci-fi/horror sensibilities and I go together like peanut butter and jelly, or more appropriately, man and nightmarish mechanical implant. So, in this entry, we’ll be taking a look at the works of one of the movement’s most out-there, boundary-stretching patron saints: the infamous Shozin Fukui.
Shozin Fukui is, for lack of a better term, one weird dude. In the ’80s, he made his first steps into the industry by directing music videos, the Possession (1981)-inspired “vomit terrorism” short Gerorisuto (1986), and the ultra-rare Super 8 punk feature Metal Days (1986), which is now practically impossible to see thanks to nearly non-existent preservation and distribution. However, he really got his break in the world of Japanese Cyberpunk when working as one of the many assistant directors on Shinya Tsukamoto’s genre-defining masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), helping craft one of sci-fi’s greatest freak-outs along with his own bizarro cyberpunk short, Caterpillar (1988).
Like practically every other film Fukui would direct, Caterpillar is hard to explain, but while his later films would be tricky due to their incredibly convoluted, almost nonsensical plot, Caterpillar’s plot can’t be summarized because it doesn’t exist. That isn’t an insult, by the way—Caterpillar is a proudly non-narrative film, sporting less spoken lines of dialogue than you can count on your hands and even less clear characters. But the gist of it is that somewhere in Japan, a few wandering youths are being terrorized by a “caterpillar,” a massive, stop-motion silver and gold monstrosity stalking the streets of Tokyo. Oh, and did I mention there’s a cyborg kid stumbling around back alleys, trying not to vomit?
Above all else, Caterpillar is a formal exercise. While it wasn’t Fukui’s first short film, it’s certainly his most out-there project, with each little vignette and character bringing its own strange imagery and content to the film. Like the works of Tsukamoto and Japanese punk godfather Sogo Ishii, there’s plenty of hyperkinetic, sped-up handheld camerawork and rapid cutting, plus the specific Tsukamoto touch of the “regular-sized monsters” turning people into massive Švankmajer/Harryhausen monstrosities with the handy trick of disorienting stop-motion. Add on a characteristically rich and unnerving soundscape, and you get one fascinating dystopian short.
The real focus of this piece, and Fukui’s place in cyberpunk culture, are his feature films. Fitting for his reputation and prior work, Fukui’s debut feature, 964 Pinocchio (1991), aka Screams of Blasphemy, is nothing short of unhinged. The film follows the titular 964 Pinocchio (Haji Suzuki), a cyborg built for sex slavery that was cast away by his masters due to a sudden onset of erectile dysfunction. Memory wiped and kicked to the curb, a dazed Pinocchio falls under the care of the enigmatic—and similarly mind-wiped—Himiko (played by an actress only credited as “Onn-chan”), who decides to raise him like a child/lover/dog. It’s not exactly what you’d call a feel-good setup, but boy does it ever set the tone for the film.
See, hot on Pinocchio’s heels are a variety of colorful faces behind his creation, all hell-bent on retrieving the expelled unit before he gets into the wrong hands. It quickly becomes clear that there’s a lot more to the cyborg than his original owners could have ever imagined, and none of it is safe.
What follows is basically just one long, horrifying cyber-erotic nightmare, with tons of storylines, big and small, being picked up and put down as the increasingly hyperkinetic editing pinballs between wildly different people, places, and plots at nearly twice the rate of Caterpillar. It’s not a film that can easily be followed—and honestly, I don’t think anyone behind the camera even cared about that fact. If anything, 964 Pinocchio works as a mood piece—barely followed, always felt. This is not a bad thing.
Matching the plot is an aesthetic that builds off the Ishii/Tsukamoto riffing of Caterpillar to create a look that’s genuinely unlike any movie I’ve ever seen before. Shot mostly either with stiff tripods or some of the shakiest handheld cameras imaginable, Fukui rips up and throws out just about any conventional wisdom on how objects and people are usually captured in film, leading to some of the most downright bizarre and striking images you can get, from POVs of CT scanners to complex tracking shots with the cameraman moving the opposite direction of the subjects. It is a truly inventive movie, and the strange camera tricks go a long way towards transforming the ordinary Tokyo streets (all captured without permits, of course) into an unrecognizable dystopian nightmare-scape—constantly moving, constantly threatening to explode at any moment.
It’s a weird movie with weird looks, and a good chunk of this weirdness manifests itself not only through its unconventional cinematography and plot, but also through harnessing its punk spirit for some good old-fashioned playful transgression. Beyond just the inherent taboo of its subject matter and incredibly unsubtle commentary on the body as a commodity under capitalism, 964 Pinocchio has its fair share of macabre imagery that just absolutely goes for it. From fleshy crucifixions to blood vomit to an extended scene of Pinocchio dragging a hunk of metal through downtown Tokyo while onlookers (who I can only assume were unaware a film was being shot in the first place) scream in horror, a good chunk of 964 Pinocchio is devoted to just pushing the audience’s buttons, with the added benefit of pounding industrial music and near-constant screeching noises in key moments to make the horror work more like a blunt instrument to the senses than something carefully designed to get under your skin.
Nowhere is 964 Pinocchio’s aggressive approach to horror clearer than one particular twist on a genre classic. See, Shozin Fukui’s favorite director is none other than Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski, and 964 Pinocchio pays tribute to one of his most infamous scenes, the aforementioned Possession’s three-minute long subway vomit attack. Yet while Żuławski’s version managed to somehow be understated despite the obvious horrors playing out, Fukui throws subtlety to the wind and just has Himiko projectile vomit a frankly ridiculous amount of mushy sickness all over a green-tinted subway station. It’s cinematic lunacy, and it’s incredible.
But unlike Caterpillar, the chaos of 964 Pinocchio isn’t just a nifty aesthetic. Unlike lots of cyberpunk media (here’s looking at you, Blade Runner), 964 Pinocchio actually remembers the damn “-punk” suffix that makes the genre more than trendy speculative kitsch. 964 Pinocchio is a deeply angry exploration of exploitation and the horrors of living in an increasingly commodified world, and it expresses its rebellion not only through a hectic plot, but through its complete rejection of classic cinematic language, structure, and narrative, with the whole thing shot guerilla-style as just a cherry on top. It may not have much of a budget, sure, but by embracing its own strange voice and capturing raw, unfiltered emotion in every asset of the film, 964 Pinocchio works better as a cyberpunk movie than almost any big-budget bombast Hollywood has to offer.
964 Pinocchio was brilliant, but it’s a tough act to follow. Shortly after filming, Fukui began work on another project, and five years later, he had a new gem. It would be another cyberpunk film, another look at madness, another mix of twisted sex and twisted violence, but this time, it would be even less restrained. It would be Rubber’s Lover.
Unlike Fukui’s other work, Rubber’s Lover is actually pretty straightforward. Somewhere in Japan, two driven scientists toil endlessly away on a horrifying unapproved project: the Digital Direct Drive, or DDD, a terrifying mechanical device that unlocks psychic abilities in humans by shattering their mental defenses through a mix of drug use, radio waves, sensory deprivation suits, extreme pain, and good old-fashioned technobabble.
It sounds like a terrible experiment on paper—in practice, it’s even worse. Buried away in an abandoned steel mill, the DDD is a mess of monitors, speakers, and chunky computers, where unsuspecting and unwilling test subjects are brutally beaten by a maid outfit-clad dominatrix (Mika Kunihiro) before being forced into tight rubber suits, pumped with mind-melting psychotropics, and bombarded with ear-splitting noise from massive speakers until the subject’s psychic abilities are unlocked—or, more likely, until they explode into meaty chunks of latex and viscera.
With so many bodies and so little results, the suits in charge aren’t too happy with how the Digital Direct Drive is panning out. So, they send in Kiku (Nao), a young secretary who is there to inform the gang that the project is being shut down. Needless to say, they don’t take it too well. One hostage-taking later, lead researchers Motomiya (Sosuke Saito) and Hitotsubashi (Normizu Ameya) realize this is their last shot—one long, torturous, final chance to get the DDD working and unlock the psychic potential in humanity. Let the long, bloody, absolutely bat-shit experiment begin.
While still recognizably a cyberpunk film with all of its focus on technology run amuck, shadowy super corporations experimenting on the poor, and unholy fusions between man and machine, Rubber’s Lover actually owes most of its influence to another infamous Japanese subgenre: ero guro nansensu.
Ero guro nansensu (literally short for “Erotic Grotesque Nonsense”) is a genre of disreputable Japanese pulp fiction that, as the name suggests, blends eroticism with grotesque surrealism in shocking, upsetting manners. Nude men and women in bondage being disemboweled by blades, lovers licking each other’s eyeballs, exposed organs where genitalia should be: it’s mind-melting, horrifying stuff. It also happens to make for incredibly good extreme horror cinema.
The ero guro influences can be found in basically everything Rubber’s Lover has to offer—from the heavy psychosexual overtones to the fetishwear basically every character dresses in—but nowhere is it as heavily felt as in how the film depicts violence. While the violence of Rubber’s Lover is every bit as twisted and grotesque as 964 Pinocchio’s extremities, here it takes on another lens, with a good chunk of it being presented as more sexual than anything else. Between all the rubber, restraints, ecstatic beatings, and talks of the ultimate highs DDD-induced violence brings, Rubber’s Lover is basically an extreme kink movie in disguise, with spurts of blood doubling for ejaculation and sex and violence being practically interchangeable as the most intimate exchange two people can have—not that the film shies away from showing intimate encounters, either.
As far as more instantly noticeable ways Rubber’s Lover differs from 964 Pinocchio, there are the visuals. While every bit as chaotic as 964 Pinocchio in terms of striking shot choices and frantic cutting, the aesthetic is entirely different. While 964 Pinocchio was an explosion of intense colors, Rubber’s Lover takes after Tetsuo with harsh, grainy, black and white visuals and an exclusively industrial aesthetic, mixing rusting metals, fetish iconography, copious amounts of smoke, and chunky analog tech in a way that can sometimes make it feel like the world’s longest Nine Inch Nails music video.
When you get down to it, Rubber’s Lover doesn’t have the same level of barely constrained anger or slick social commentary as 964 Pinocchio, or anything really approaching that level. Sure, it gestures towards statements on the evils of corporations, capitalist exploitation of the poor, and the social interplay of sex and violence, but really, Rubber’s Lover is a blunt weapon. It’s information overload, a non-stop barrage of screaming and thrashing and smoke and blood and steel and ecstasy delivered at a rapid pace at a level of aggression few films could ever hope to match. It’s pure cinema, constant and sharp, and practically unparalleled in the realm of non-Tsukamoto, nonstop cyberpunk thrill rides. It’s not a film for everyone; it’s weird, it’s loud, it’s abrasive, and the psychosexual overtones will be sure to put a good majority of people off from ever seeing it, but if you can get on Rubber’s Lover’s wavelength, then you’re in for a movie unlike anything else.
And really, what else would you expect from Shozin Fukui? After his two cyberpunk masterpieces, he stepped away from directing feature films until 2006, when he came back with two more modern, more conventional J-horror films. But what he left behind with 964 Pinocchio and Rubber’s Lover is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating and bizarre legacies of any sci-fi director in cinema. Shozin Fukui is a madman. Forever may he reign.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Junji Ito Adaptations