Japan Society raises money for tsunami relief with ‘Helldriver,’ a movie about mutant girls with chainsaws for arms

Still image from Helldriver. ()
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Simon Abrams

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When you think of tsunami relief, you probably don’t think of low-budget zombie movies featuring girls with chainsaw-swords for arms.

Apparently, Japan Society programmer Samuel Jamier didn’t either, at first. But sure enough, Helldriver, a grisly zombie horror comedy directed by Tokyo Gore Police director Yoshihiro Nishimura, is screening this Thursday at Japan Society to help raise money for relief efforts in Japan.

The decision to use Helldriver at a charity event like this seems like a strange one, considering Nishimura’s typical carnival-esque sense of humor and heavy emphasis on elaborate make-up effects that revolve around exploding body parts and armed mutant women. But it's been in the works for a while.

“Helldriver wasn’t supposed to be related to our Relief Fund, originally,” Jamier explained in an email. “We programmed it with [New York Asian Film Festival programmers] Subway Cinema quite a while before the tragic events of March 11. We talked about bringing [actress and Helldriver star] Shiina Eihi…here for months, until we could confirm.”

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Jamier also wrote, “Japan Society has taken positive action – almost immediately after the disaster – and created a fund 100% dedicated to aid victims of the Tohoku-Pacific Ocean earthquake, for which we have raised so far over $5 million.”

While Jamier has been curating the Japan Society’s film program, several of Nishimura and his peers’ goofy and gory films have screened at gala events co-sponsored by Subway Cinema, including the omnibus X-Men parody Mutant Girls Squad and last year’s pre-NYAFF screening of Robo-Geisha. Jamier expects the audience for this upcoming event will consist of “Crazy people, mostly. But not in a psychotic, sociopathic kind of way: more in a ‘I enjoy watching people eat each other and seeing Japanese high school girls’ heads explode’ kind of way. Mostly Caucasian, interestingly.”

If Helldriver is anything like Nishimura’s other films, Thursday’s screening will feature a lot of onscreen carnage.

Tokyo Gore Police, Nishimura’s most famous film, is something like Robocop by way of David Cronenberg, except it’s more of a slapstick comedy than Verhoeven’s dark action comedy. Produced and partially distributed by Shochiku, Japan’s venerable, 100-plus-year-old film studio, Tokyo Gore Police is full of effective jokes made in poor taste.

For example, Ruka (Shiina), an implacable mutant-hunting police officer, penalizes a nebbishy man who gropes her on a crowded subway train by cutting off his hands. She humorlessly admonishes him thusly: “An act of molestation is clearly a crime.” Ruka then walks towards the camera in slow motion dressed in a colorful silk robe while her victim’s arm stumps shoot geysers of blood. She shields herself from the torrential sprays of blood with a dainty paper umbrella.

Odder than that are the peripheral race-baiting jokes that Nishimura uses in both Tokyo Gore Police and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. Both films feature Japanese actors in blackface. To be fair, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl ostensibly uses those offensive representative caricatures to make fun of Japanese teenage girls who want to look and act “black.” But all the same, the sight of characters waving around tribal spears and refusing to drink coffee with cream or any other “white stuff” is designed to be provocative.

Jamier makes the case that there’s always room for Nishimura’s over-the-top, exploitative sensibility.

“I believe each kind [of] film has its own purpose,” he explained, “and in the end there’s a time for everything: there’s a time to watch Ozu’s films and ponder how they related to Deleuze’s concept of the line of flight and deterritorialization in motion picture aesthetics, and there’s a time when all you want to watch is attractive-looking girls mutating into flesh-eating creatures. It’s not the same thing, and at the same time it is. But that’s the (wide) reality of the film experience.”

As a curator, Jamier is (thankfully) not concerned with programming films for posterity’s sake.

“In the end, who knows,” he said. “Today’s grindhouse can be tomorrow’s arthouse. I’m not saying that Helldriver is the new Jigoku or Female Prisoner Scorpion. But we don’t exactly have the benefit of hindsight to make that kind of statement.

“As a curator/programmer, I like the idea that, although I am part of an institution, I don’t take an institutional stance to what I choose. I have no problem doing Yoshida Kiju films, classics by Kobayashi Masaki, AND low-budget indie films, gore movies, pinku, etc. I just like to keep an open mind. I watch literally everything.”

Jamier says that screening Helldriver was his way of keeping everything going in the face of tragedy: “The show must go on; you can be serious about entertainment and serious about helping out. That’s really what the Helldriver event is about.”

For more information about Japan Society’s charity screening of Helldriver and about its other programming, click here.