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Movie Reviews: Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis is absolutely ridiculous from beginning to end, but don’t take that as a recommendation. It’s a big-budget (for Japan) supernatural fantasy / horror epic with just about everything you could think of stuffed into its two-plus-hour running time: It has slumbering demons, stop-motion monsters, cute priestesses, nerdy scientists, robots (yes, robots), and a massive network of underground supernatural power lines that fuel the evil lying dormant within early 20th-century Tokyo. All that’s missing is a story—or, rather, a story that makes any degree of sense and isn’t simply a way to get from one scene to the next. But if you just like to ogle the action, climb aboard.

Megalopolis opens with a grim, graying spiritualist making dire predictions about Tokyo’s fate. Dark forces are conspiring to unseal Masakado, a villain of a thousand years hence, who will unleash untold destruction. Kato, a rogue spiritualist (who affects the dress of a Taisho-era army officer), has set his sights on breaking the seals on Masakado’s tomb and allowing the dead man’s spirit to reincarnate through him. “Tokyo will become a giant graveyard,” the medium warns, which turns out to be more or less what Kato wants. Humanity has polluted the land, and he wants to return it to a pristine state of nature with a grand cleansing.

1920s-era Tokyo becomes the arena for a spiritual showdown between good and evil.

Rather than risk himself directly, Kato abducts Yukari, a young psychic medium, whom he can then use as his vessel for Masakado’s rebirth. Her family of course comes to the rescue, along with the lovely spiritual warrior Keiko, but they need to build up their own spiritual power all the more before they can attack. (At one point Yukari’s grandfather needs to divine when Tokyo may be destroyed, and does so by committing seppuku while sitting on a calendar and seeing where most of the blood ends up) And meanwhile, there’s an expedition by a team of scientists into the underground beneath Tokyo, to tunnel sidelong into Masakado’s grave (with a World’s Fair-style robot!) and blow it up before he can be resurrected.

If this sounds horribly abstruse and confusing, it is. Instead of having one clear storyline, Megalopolis has four or five competing ones, and what interest we could have in the movie gets buried under a landslide of magical gibberish and bewildering speech-making. It’s amazing how confusing this film is. It does, however, look terrific—and I’m not talking about the special effects, which are second-rate for the most part, but the movie’s nifty recreation of Taisho-era Tokyo on massive sets and soundstages.

Spirit warrior Keiko faces off against rogue magician Kato for the fate of Tokyo and the world.

What’s most disappointing about the film is its pedigree. It was written by Kaizo Hayashi, a very good director responsible for The Most Terrible Time in My Life as well as the whacko / brilliant Zipang (which was produced by the same company that financed this film). The director was Ajio Jissoji, who gave us the wonderful Mujo (courtesy of Japan’s experimental movie company Art Theatre Guild) and a number of other visually-exciting films, but he seems to be more channeling his work in the mega-cheesy Ultraman series here.

Megalopolis got a further measure of fame by the fact that some of the design work in the film was by none other than H.R. Giger. Trouble is, his work is barely glimpsed at all—he seems to have been responsible for maybe one or two of the diabolical creations on screen, and the rest are more directly inspired by existing mythology. At one point we have a vomit creature strongly redolent of the one in Poltergeist II (which Giger also had a hand in—coincidence?), and a bizarre circular-saw-wielding robotic gremlin that comes and goes so fast I could barely see it. Most of the other monsters are either pretty nifty Harryhausen-esque stop-motion creations (including a fantastic-looking four-headed deva that has far too little screen time) or gooey-looking rod puppets that look like they came from the same factory that turned out Spielberg’s Gremlins.

Despite all the movie's delving into esoteric Japanese mysticism, it never actually gets interesting.

One of the interesting things about many Japanese horror and fantasy movies is how they make liberal use of their own land’s history and mythology, often weaving specific events tightly into the plot. Megalopolis includes, among other things, the earthquake that leveled Tokyo in 1923, villains from Japan’s legendary past, and endless little details about necromancy, numerology and yin-yang astrology (which the Onmyoji movies were also about). There's also a strong undercurrent in the story about the way Tokyo has become a modern city at great spiritual expense, but the story never really makes these potentially interesting details into more than set dressing. Consequently, Megalopolis is two confusing hours of effects and sets in search of a better storyline. But the shrine girls sure are cute.

Tags: Japan  movies  review 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2005/02/02 01:46.

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