July 23, 2011, will surely be remembered in the realms of underground film fandom as a date of historical significance, seeing the official Japanese theatrical releases of not one, not two, not even three, but four outrageous titles created under the auspices of Nikkatsu’s Sushi Typhoon label. Alien vs Ninja, Deadball, Yakuza Weapon, and, of course, Helldriver, all made their official debut at Ginza Cine Pathos in Tokyo, possibly gracing that screen with more gut-wrenching, gory goodness than ever before.
“Now, wait a minute, Mr. Skeleton,” you may be saying to yourself. “Didn’t you just report on the premiere of Helldriver back in March? What’s this business about another launch?” Well, gentle reader, perhaps a bit of clarification is in order. Filmed in 2010, Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Helldriver had its official world premiere that same year on September 20 at the International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, Spain, followed by its Japan premiere at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival on February 26, 2011. The showing that I attended on March 4, 2011, was the film’s Tokyo premiere, shown as a part of the Tokyo Zombie Film Festival. Helldriver has since made the rounds of film fests, mostly in the form of a shortened (and slightly censored) “international version,” bringing Nishimura’s delightfully perverse vision to bloodthirsty gore-hounds across the globe. And so, July 23 represented the official theatrical launch in Japan of Helldriver in its original uncensored edit, running about 12 minutes longer than the international version.
So, back to the launch! After a lovely dinner at the Vampire Café in Ginza, I found myself staring down a wide staircase leading to what might best be described as a glorified underground passageway. Standing bars, udon noodle shops, and other establishments lined most of one side, while the remaining areas were peppered with film posters and entrances to the Cine Pathos theaters. Guarded by an AVN alien, lined with bloody, severed zombie heads, and crowned with the massive scythes wielded by Tak Sakaguchi’s Kisaragi in Mutant Girls Squad, it wasn’t too difficult to spot the right entrance. Fans milled about the area, lining up dutifully to receive felt-tip blessings upon their posters from favorite actors, actresses, and filmmakers. I was pleased to catch up with director Nishimura, actor Kentaro Kishi, and my friend Norman England (an extra in the film and responsible for the excellent English subtitles). I also had the privilege of conversing with the always delightful Asami, who appears in Helldriver and many other notable Nishimura/Iguchi films.
After being pushed back for nearly thirty minutes, the eager film aficionados were finally allowed into the theater, pouring into a lobby full zombie heads, ninja suits, and other props; even the restrooms were unable to escape the carnage! Official Helldriver T-shirts were available for sale, and a booth was set up for live interviews via Ustream throughout the day (recordings from that day can be viewed here).
The theater itself was rather cramped and could have used a bit more in the way of air conditioning, but none of that mattered when Noboru Iguchi lurched to the front of the screen in a rather loose kimono, shouting something barely comprehensible from beneath an ill-fitting latex zombie mask to welcome the audience to the final showing of that day’s Sushi Typhoon Festival.
A fully clothed Nishimura then led the cast out to the stage, including lead actress Yumiko Hara (Kika), Eihi Shiina (Rikka), Kentaro Kishi (Yasushi), Honoka (kimono zombie), Yurei Yanagi (Taku), Kazuki Namioka (Kai), Mizuki Kusumi (Nanashi), Yuya Ishikawa (Kika’s father), and Asami (“hyper police” wall guard). And if you did a double-take when I mentioned that Mr. Nishimura was fully clothed, fear not, for it took nary a moment’s convincing to have him strip down to the fundoshi Japanese undergarment that has become his trademark at these events. With Mr. Iguchi serving as master of ceremonies, the cast and crew related their thoughts on the film and the grueling two weeks of Hell that gave birth to this latest monster mashup. The fact that Mr. Nishimura managed to serve as director, co-screenwriter, editor, character designer and special makeup effects supervisor on the film and still churn out Helldriver in such a short period is truly a testament to his passion as a creator, and also the assiduous efforts of everyone involved in the production.
When viewing these movies, I often think about the beauty of film as a medium, and how a group of disparate individuals can bring their talents together to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Sometimes, combinations and affinities are discovered that function particularly well, and it takes a charismatic and dedicated director to orchestrate them. Some examples in Hollywood that come to mind include Tim Burton, with his frequent collaborations with Danny Elfman and repeated use of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, and others in his films. Perhaps closer in flavor would be the works of Quentin Tarantino, and especially Robert Rodriguez (with Planet Terror often used as a point of comparison). Both of these filmmakers find actors and staff that hold a particular resonance with them, and use their unique characteristics and personal quirks to enhance their directorial visions. This sense of camaraderie then gives the audience the feeling that the folks involved actually enjoy working with each other and have a vested interest in how the film is received, and aren’t just in it for a fat paycheck. This in turn serves to make viewing the film a more enjoyable experience overall.
My own thoughts aside, the enlightening talks that eventide were cut off all too soon, but an even bigger treat was in store for us. What are my impressions of the gore-spewing, blood-spraying, flesh-chomping, bone-gnawing action of Helldriver’s original cut? That will have to wait for next time. Until then, if you have the chance, check out the Sushi Typhoon Festival going on now in Tokyo. You won’t regret it!
Special thanks to Norman England for the fantastic photos!