One of the many perks of Blu-Ray re-releases is the granted ability to revisit a film that you otherwise might not have, or in some cases, the chance to check off a much anticipated first-time-watch from your bucket list. When it comes to Meatball Machine, I fall into the former. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, my first exposure to the film was seeing the box art at a local video store, something I miss dearly, and renting it out to eagerly broaden my familiarity with Japanese cinema. And though I wasn’t familiar with the work of Yūdai Yamaguchi then, I have found much to enjoy from his filmography since.
To my surprise, Yamaguchi-san began his career six years prior when he collaborated with soon-to-be acclaimed filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura on Versus, a zombie action horror film that he co-wrote. It’s a small world after all! Needless to say, Yamaguchi had already dipped his toes in the fantasy world of bloody battles and sinister practical effects before taking on Meatball Machine, his science fiction splatter film that happens to be based on an earlier work by Jun’ichi Yamamoto, who also co-directed this version. The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller! I hadn’t revisited this flick since the day I found it at my local video store, but I was happy to find that it still holds up well after all of these years upon rewatch.
Our lead character is Yoji, a lugubrious and lonely factory worker who evidently has little to no experience with women. He has an averse reaction to the lurid conversations of his coworkers, but it becomes clear that he isn’t exactly a prude either. As it turns out, he has his eyes set on a seemingly diffident woman named Sachiko, who he surreptitiously watches while on his lunch break. After a series of very unusual events, Yoji and Sachiko do end up speaking to one another, and Sachiko admits to having noticed Yoji as well. Things might have gone wonderfully for these two love birds, but this is a splatter film after all, which means that things will inexorably become a bit grotesque.
Strange alien-like objects are seen scattered all over town, and at one point we see one of them attache itself to a child like a parasite, turning him into a bio-mechanical monster called a “NecroBorg”. These beings are attracted to others like them, or rather their goal is to actively find each other and fight to the death. I guess it’s sort of a sport to them; coming to Earth and using humans as avatars to battle it out like an arcade game. Sounds fun if you’re in the alien’s shoes! Yoji comes across one of these parasites while it’s immobile on his way home from work, and decides to take it home to figure out what it is. When Sachiko visits his home for the first time, the alien lies hidden in a closet, watching, and waiting to claim its next host.
We learn a bit more about these aliens through a side plot involving a mysterious man and his daughter, who has been infected by one of the NecroBorgs. She is perhaps the most visually striking human character, mimicking kegadoru fashion with parts of her body bandaged up to conceal what may be alien growths or lacerations. They have a run-in with Yoji while out hunting for NecroBorgs, and they provide him with much needed information about these beings, most likely making him regret ever picking up that strange object days before. Let this be a lesson for you all; don’t pick up alien-like objects off the street!
While most splatter films are a bit fatuous, Meatball Machine sets itself apart with the inclusion of this doomed romance. It doesn’t distract from the sci-fi action we came for, but instead adds a bit of depth to it. To all intents and purposes, I would say that the two opposing themes are balanced quite effortlessly overall, with each of them given an ample amount of attention throughout the short runtime of 90 minutes. Well, short by today’s standards anyway. My favorite bits are when we’re shown the aliens themselves inside their pods as they control their human avatars; perhaps it’s an unpopular opinion but I find them to be kind of cute in a bizarre kind of way!
Speaking of the creatures themselves, the practical effects were helmed by none other than Yoshihiro Nishimura, an auteur filmmaker who would later produce a sequel and a personal favorite of mine. This may sound biased, but I have yet to see a film with his involvement that does not feature top notch special effects and creature designs. I can only compare the NecroBorgs here to the Wheelers from Return to Oz, (if you know, you know), but with human faces whose eyes are obscured by large round metal plates, almost giving the impression of having giant buttons sewn in. In this case, the metal plates are actually drilled into the eye sockets of the avatar, which is arguably more disturbing. The lineament of these NecroBorgs is what sparked my interest at the video store those years ago.
I have seen many compare this to Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and while I can see some similarities, I don’t believe I would have made that comparison on my own. For one, Meatball Machine’s tone is almost entirely different from Tetsuo; there’s a more frivolous vibe throughout, and a self awareness that is absent from the latter. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tetsuo inspired both Yamaguchi and Yamamoto, but their work is far from redundant. A good comparison is Hereditary and Rosemary’s Baby; the two share very similar themes but are far from being the same film. At the very least I think that Meatball Machine and Tetsuo make for an epic double feature movie night!
The Region B slipcase edition Blu-Ray of Meatball Machine will be released on April 12th by Terracotta Distribution, your one-stop Asian film store. Limited to only 2,000 copies, this high definition release of the film will include an exclusive interview with Yudai Yamaguchi, commissioned by Terracotta themselves, cast and crew Interviews, ‘Reject of Death’ short film, ‘What’s about Doi?’ short film, an ‘Illustration build-up’ showcasing the gorgeous new cover art process by artist Simon Heard, who created a piece that is just as alluring as the original, and much much more. This is most definitely the best way to revisit the film more than 15 years later, or even give it the much-anticipated first time watch!