Rubber’s Lover sets out to blow our minds the way Tetsuo: The Iron Man did, and while it doesn’t succeed as completely it’s still a trip worth taking. There’s slightly more dialogue than Tetsuo, and slightly more plot, but let’s face it — the real reason this movie exists is (in the words of William S. Burroughs) to blast, jolt and vibrate the senses. It’s also another prime example of the very small but incredibly energetic and creative cinematic underground in Japan, a close cousin to movies like Organ and Death Powder where minimal budgets were stretched to maximal effect. Lover uses grainy black-and-white 16mm photography, a few sparse but good-looking found locations, and some of the most over-the-top performances imaginable to wring the audience dry. It works.
Rubber’s Lover functions both as an underground horror movie and a jet-black satire on corporate-sponsored scientific experimentation, although the horror-movie side of the film is definitely the more successful of the two. Somewhere in Japan, a small group of scientists are on the company payroll to produce human subjects with psychic powers. The experimental subjects are shrouded in bondage-style rubber suits, juiced up with illegal drugs, and exposed to ear-shattering sonic bombardments. Those that don’t die or go insane develop superhuman abilities — that is, if they too don’t die almost immediately afterwards. The first scenes in the film feature the two lead researchers pushing the needle to “11” on their latest subject (read: victim), who vomits gallons of blood and dies in the tester’s chair.
With their main test subject dead, the two scientists start casting around for a replacement. They find two: one of their fellow researchers, and a company secretary charged with telling them the whole project is being shut down — effective immediately. To their amazement, the two of them not only survive, but become more powerful than they could have ever imagined. Then they turn on their tormentors in a rush of gore-splattered scenes drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Scanners, Altered States, The Fury and, yes, Tetsuo — although the movie never comes off as a clone of any of that material, thank goodness. The very last moments of the film even segue right into director Shozin Fukui’s follow-up, Pinnochio 964 (which is supposed to be even more extreme and out-there than Lover, incredibly).
There’s scarcely a scene in the film that isn’t constructed as an attack on the eyes and ears. Fukui drenches the soundtrack with a violent, pummeling electronic score courtesy of Tanizaki Tetora (apparently a music professor at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts in Japan), and loads every shot with something lurid or bizarre. The scientists’ lab is jammed with pulsing, Brazil-esque video screens and control boards, like some kind of Satanic music studio, and the experimental suit they seal their subjects in is straight out of Hajime Sorayama’s sex-and-technology paintings. Even more to the point, Fukui sends his actors into screaming, fit-throwing tantrums of violence and sadism, often for minutes on end — which, interestingly, winds up being the most horrific and effective device of all.
Rubber’s Lover first came to my attention courtesy of Thomas Weisser’s books on cult Japanese cinema, in which he wrote lovingly of Lover, Organ, 964 Pinocchio, Hiruko the Goblin, the Entrails films, Makai Tensho, and many more that may never surface on legitimate home video either here or in Japan. “Fukui doesn’t want to tell us the story,” Weisser wrote, “he wants to show it to us.” This explains why a good deal of the dialogue is essentially forgettable techno-gibberish, and the real meat of the story is in the grainy, high-contrast images that Fukui shoves into our faces. One of the components of the body suit is a face mask that monitors the subject’s REM movements, displaying their wide, frightened eyes on separate little LCD monitors, and after only 20 minutes of the movie we really do start to feel like the poor sap in the suit.
Sometimes I think horror movies have turned into one giant one-upsmanship contest, where the objective is to find ever newer and more creative ways to separate an audience from their wits (or their lunch). Rubber’s Lover isn’t so much frightening as it is gruesome and transgressional, which makes it a good example for how Japanese horror movies differ from their Western counterparts. For one, they’re far more fascinated by taboo-breaking, psychological sadism and twisted sexuality than just bloodletting or gut-spilling. They’re not cathartic or “scary”; they openly dare the viewer to sit through them by being unpleasant in a whole variety of ways.
That said, I’m also starting to realize, for better or worse, that a fair number of people watch movies for exactly those reasons. They want to see something they’ve never seen before, and have their world rocked in a wholly different way. If you look at it that way, Rubber’s Lover is pretty successful: it’s wild, stylish, outlandish, ingenious and freaky all the way through. Consider that a recommendation, if you will.