Machine Girl is all the proof you need that low-budget exploitation cinema is alive and well. Instead of looking for it in the now-demolished fleapit theaters of Times Square, it’s coming to you in the comfort of one’s own living room, by way of Japan. This is not a bad thing. Exploitation movies are designed to go over the top, and Machine Girl not only goes over the top, it tears the top off, sets it on fire, and throws it back at you.
We are, after all, talking about a movie where a teenaged girl gets one arm amputated by gangsters, then attaches a super-tommy gun to the stump and goes to town on her tormentors. Heads gets blown apart. Limbs are hacked off. Holes are blown through torsos and weapons fired through the holes. Gorehounds won’t just be delighted; they’ll be smacking their foreheads and laughing in disbelief at some of the stuff the filmmakers pull here. But it’s all more surreal and hallucinatory than anything else, and after a while you’re not so much grossed out as amazed at how much they’re able to jam into a mere ninety minutes of running time.
The plot’s as basic as it gets. Slightly tomboyish high-school girl Ami (Minase Yashiro) lives happily with her brother, although the two of them have to deal with the legacy of their dead parents. Mom and Dad were accused of a murder they didn’t commit, and were hounded to death because of it. The good times come permanently to an end when Ami’s brother and a friend of his are bullied and murdered by the son of a local yakuza clan lord. Ami snaps and goes after the members of the kid’s gang, but then Gangster Dad ensnares her and slices off her arm for jolly. (One nice touch is that Ami is already a pretty good brawler to begin with, so she puts up a fair fight right from the git-go.)
Somehow Ami escapes and collapses, bloodied and maimed, on the doorstep of a husband-and-wife team of garage mechanics. Their son was her brother’s buddy, and Mom — a former bad-girl herself — blames Ami for his death. Eventually they put their rivalries behind them courtesy of a round of fisticuffs and some arm-wrestling over a bed of nails (yes, you heard right), and help outfit Ami with her trademark machine gun so they can all get revenge. Mayhem ensues, and ensues, and ensues.
This is all completely insane, of course, and it’s been filmed with the mad gusto that something this whacked-out deserves. Even the slow scenes have a dose of the bizarre, like the chef in the yakuza household who’s forced to eat finger sushi — courtesy of his own left hand — when he spills soup on the Young Master. The kid’s mother, by the way, is no less of a homicidal loon than her husband; for the final showdown, she dons a bulletproof bra outfitted with revolving drills. Yes.
Watching Machine Girl, which was probably made for less than the catering budgets of most other movies, brought to mind the beef I had with the Quentin Tarantino / Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse project. It’s not that Planet Terror / Death Proof were themselves bad (although that’s a judgment call), but that they missed the point. The exploitation fare of yesteryear, apart from it being mostly boring, forgettable junk (they called it trash cinema for a reason), was shot on tiny budgets by people trying to make a buck. The best homage to exploitation movies is, well, another exploitation movie — one shot using more or less the same constraints on budget, distribution, and so on.
I’ve also written before about how Asian movies seem to fall naturally into rhythms where they shift between multiple moods — comedy, horror, drama, surrealism — without tangling their steps. There’s scarcely a Takashi Miike film (well, okay, maybe Sabu) that isn’t put together like that, and Machine Girl has great fun mining every mood, influence and idea it can get its grubby little hands on. And no movie of this kind would be complete without some homage to Bruce Campbell and his prosthetic chainsaw hand … although here, it’s a foot.