How can I not take to heart a film this gleefully bonkers? Battle Heater is about a man-eating radiator, a description which all by itself could well tell you whether or not you want to see it. It’s the sort of movie where a small budget and limited resources are made up for with loving attention to detail and a sense of humor — the spiritual godfather to current stuff like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, although it’s far less gratuitously nasty than either of those films. (Yes, for some people, that is a bonus.)
The “heater” in question is actually a kotatsu, a table-shaped space heater outfitted with a cloth to cover one’s legs. It’s a common fixture in Japanese homes, as much a symbol of comfort there as a bowl of chicken soup or a cup of hot chocolate is here. A junk collector and handyman (veteran Akira Emoto, who’s been in many movies reviewed here) stumbles across a kotatsu that seems destined for the scrapheap, and takes it home to repair it. He’s one of those folks who can’t bear to throw anything away, and so his apartment makes Fibber’s closet look downright tidy.
The handyman's apartment is a curious place, where table heaters
eat the tenants and the tenants hack each other to pieces.
The apartment building where the repairman lives — and in fact, a good deal of the surrounding movie — is a breeding ground for insanity. The kindly old husband-and-wife who run the place commit suicide every night with fifty thousand volts wired through their temples, and then come back to life the next morning the same way. Another apartment’s inhabited by a husband-and-wife pair — except the husband is dead, murdered by the wife, who spends most of the film coercing her henpecked boyfriend into helping cut the body up and flush it down the toilet. (The whole way they show the corpse being progressively dissected is by having the actor play the dead man stick his body up through a hole in the set floor; every couple of shots, he stands a little lower.) And then there’s the crazy punk-rock band (real-life band Bakufu Slump) next door to the repairman, who single him out for abuse when he accidentally stabs one of their boys through an adjoining wall with a screwdriver.
This is all bad enough — can you imagine borrowing a cup of sugar from any of these neighbors? — but the presence of the kotatsu throws things even more out of balance. It’s normally inert, but it has a nasty tendency to use its electric cord as a kind of appendange, sniffing out potential victims and sucking all the electricity from the adjoining apartments (and later on, from the neighborhood as a whole). Anyone who sits down at it is sucked under and devoured, in a way that’s a jab at all those monster movies where the victims scream and beat their fists at the creatures’ mouth.
The punk rock band next door stages a farewell concert,
which gets a party-crasher from the underworld.
The more the kotatsu eats, the bigger it gets, until the repairman realizes conventional tactics aren’t going to cut it and he builds himself a Tetsuo: The Iron Man-style combat suit out of spare parts to do battle with the beast. There’s more, too: I haven’t even gone into the subplots about the wandering warrior monk, or the farewell concert the band stages up in their apartment (attended by a battalion of sobbing teen girls). Or the repairman’s girlfriend, the subject of amorous rivalry from the band’s leader. Or the repairman’s buddy, who accidentally discovers the secret of containing the kotatsu’s evil when it’s embedded in his forehead.
As you can guess, this is about attitude and any excuse possible to make a joke from the material, not an airtight plot. The timing’s for surprise laughs — there’s a lot of shots that linger and wait, and then spring the punchline on you out of left field — which is a nice break from movies which all seem to be stuck in first gear. Look close enough and you can see the string they used to animate the power cord, but the fact you can see it in a film like this only makes you smile all the more. And then there’s the opening and closing credits, which are jokes unto themselves and are way too good to spoil.
Battle Heater was one of the many movies Tom Weisser wafted under my cultural nose in his Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia series, which for all their faults did make me aware of a whole galaxy of productions that hadn’t been imported to the U.S. yet. The director was Jōji Iida (aka “George” Ida), who also gave us the animated CLAMP adaptation Tokyo Babylon and the odd, unsatisfying Another Heaven, which had more interesting ideas than it knew what to do with in its over-long running time. That mistake has not been made here; this movie’s a goofy little gem.