Absurdity and extremity are often interlinked, especially in modern Japanese cinema. This leads to the creation of a Western-aimed genre films – referred to as “J-Splatter” – that rely on spectacle for humor and impact, their “typical” Japanese weirdness directed at Western audiences rather than Japanese ones. Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and The Machine Girl are key examples of J-Splatter films, as both released in the United States before they were released to Japanese audiences, and contain over-the-top violence, often with cheap special effects that lead to a certain janky charm.
These films are often horror-comedies, or at the very least horror films that contain a lot of comedic impact from the absurdity, with strange content ranges from supernatural creatures to neo-nazi human science experiments. They also incorporate elements of eroticism and fetish, forming a mixture between extremist film and ‘ero guro nansensu.’ Themes of perversion are incredibly common throughout the genre, and often the directors will either come from – or move to – directing pornographic content. In many ways these works can be compared to the exploitation films known as “Video Nasties” from the 1980s, with both their absurdity and violence drawing features. Throughout the early days of the “Video Nasties” affair, the moral panic and outrage that arose from the content served to dramatically boost sales, and brought their existence to wide public attention. The Splatter genre worked in a similar way; save for the moral panic, the draw comes from word of mouth and being spread as a spectacle.
Directors of these films have contributed to compilation works based in the West, such as the ABCs of Death (2013) and its sequel, ABCs of Death 2 (2014), where Noboru Iguchi, Yuudai Yamaguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Hajime Ohata, and Soichi Umezawa all directed segments. These filmmakers all work within the J-Splatter genre, and Noboru Iguchi in particular works as a director for adult video (AV) films. However, while these compilations are horror-comedies based on similar over-the-top elements contained in the Splatter genre, they usually don’t contain as much of a perversion element.
A lot of the individuals that work within the genre, from directors to actors, become well-known names as you burrow further. To dive into a genre as insane as this, there are a few core films that are must-watches:
Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
The best place to start would be with what could be the most prominent J-Splatter film, Tokyo Gore Police. Set in future Tokyo, Ruka (a samurai sword-wielding special forces cop) battles through waves of mutant rebels known as Engineers in order to track down her father’s killer. The Engineers have the ability to transform any injury they get into a deadly weapon. This leads to everything from penis cannons to crocodile-like lower bodies. As a starting point, you’ll find all the biggest elements wrapped in a ball of insanity here. There’s blood aplenty, body horror, ridiculous characters and situations, fetishistic costumes and monsters, and an incredibly dark backdrop to a bright-red affair.
This is the boom of the genre in a way, and collects some of the biggest names within it. Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Deadball, Battlefield Baseball) is one of the actors, and also did the fight choreography. Sion Sono, a prolific director and the director’s mentor, has a small cameo part as well. Yoshihiro Nishimura, who works in the makeup department on a large number of J-Splatter films and has gone on to direct many more, helms this gore-soaked ride. Most of the names associated with Tokyo Gore Police work across the genre, including writers Kengo Kaji and Maki Mazui.
Possibly the start of the modern J-Splatter genre, Ryuhei Kitamura’s iconic take on a zombie/highlander fusion is just as blood-soaked as it is creative. Whilst Versus has the liberal gore element and highly ridiculous characters and scenarios, it feels much more serious in tone than many others in the genre. The film takes place entirely within the “forest of resurrection,” following Tak Sakaguchi as an escaped convict referred to as “Prisoner KSC2-303,” who sees a girl being kidnapped by a group of Yakuza, and takes action. After killing one of the Yakuza, they come back as a zombie, leading the prisoner and the girl to run into the cursed forest, with the Yakuza chasing after them. Jumping from the present day to samurai days, a plot surrounding inter-dimensional portals and fated enemies unravels.
The fight scenes in the film, from swordplay to hand-to-hand, were filmed in real time, and are highly choreographed. Ending with a ten-minute dramatic swordfight scene, everyone involved did a tremendous job in making the action look intense and stylish. It feels like a character action game come to life, very reminiscent of Devil May Cry (rightfully so, as action director Yuji Shimomura directed that game’s cutscenes).
Battlefield Baseball / Deadball (2003 / 2011)
Both directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, and both starring Tak Sakaguchi as a prisoner forced into playing a twisted and sadistic form of baseball for his life, these two films have very similar plotlines in places. Though they are similar, Deadball acting as essentially a remake 8 years on, they feature some incredible scenes, and are both definitely worth the watch. Since his impressive performance in Versus, Sakaguchi has become a stalwart of the genre, starring in or working on most of the major films. He also works outside of the genre, collaborating with Sion Sono (who forms his own brand of absurdity in his films), amongst other film makers.
Tak Sakaguchi has some great running jokes throughout Deadball, such as plucking a cigarette from nowhere just out of camera, as well as his cool, calm, and collected attitude and reactions. In both films Sakaguchi (who could possibly be the coolest person in the world in his roles) stars as Jûbei Yakyû. His name is a pun, with Yakyû directly meaning baseball, highlighting the comedic absurdity found within both films. There are Neo-Nazis, dog narrators, giant robot death fights, and dwarves being used as baseball bats. Complete with amazing stunts and action sequences, both films end up going in mostly different directions as they ramp up. Battlefield Baseball follows a more highschool sports rivalry plotline, whilst Deadball takes those elements and runs away with it to a world domination plot.
Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)
Incredibly fun, starring gravure idol Yukie Kawamura, and co-directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Naoyuki Tomomatsu, this gory ride takes the viewer through highschool love, centuries-old vampire grudges, blood-formed rollerskates, and murderous resurrected schoolgirls. Somehow the violent vampire becomes one of the protagonists of the film, with the scorned “Frankenstein girl” firmly taking the place of antagonist.
The theme of wrist cutting returns from Nishimura’s previous film, Tokyo Gore Police. This work also parodies several sub-cultures popular in Japan, such as ganguro and lolita fashion. It collects some of the best and brightest in the genre together, with Tak Sakaguchi once again working as fight choreographer, and Eihi Shiina (Tokyo Gore Police, Audition) appearing as the vampire girl’s mother. Oddly enough, Takashi Shimizu, known for directing the Ju-On: The Grudge series, makes an appearance as a chain-smoking Chinese professor as well. The film uses its budget creatively, with blood-forming weapons and a particularly trippy visual scene when the boy both girls have fallen in love with eats blood from a chocolate the vampire girl gives him. A perfect followup to Battlefield Baseball and Deadball, as Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl doesn’t take itself seriously, and has a really fun time with its themes.
Noboru Iguchi’s films
The most prolific modern J-Splatter director, with works such as The Machine Girl and Dead Sushi, Noboru Iguchi exhibits an incredible amount of creativity to shape new and unique tales of depravity and excess. Iguchi has worked as a director for AV for a large part of his career, and brings that focus on sexuality into his range of J-Splatter films. Moving from black comedy to serious Junji Ito body horror, his works cross the expanse of the genre. As with many other films in the genre, Noboru Iguchi puts a focus on strong female protagonists, despite the terrible way they’re treated by the world around them.
The Machine Girl is another iconic example of the genre, and the best place to start in Iguchi’s filmography. The special effects were done by Yoshihiro Nishimura, who went on to direct Tokyo Gore Police later that year. This and Tokyo Gore Police were a large part of the J-Splatter boom in 2008, with a wave of new films and new names joining the genre after them. The film follows Minase Yashiro as Ami Hyuga, a normal highschool girl until her brother and his friend are murdered by bullies. Revenge is the central theme of the film, as Ami tracks down the leader to his Yakuza family and tries to enact her vengeance. They overpower her and cut off her arm, which leads to her being given a machine gun arm prosthetic, something she uses to truly get her revenge. If there’s a chance to see Shyness Machine Girl as well, it’s worth it for the short continuation and the extended insanity.
Dead Sushi is another comedic approach to the genre, starring Rina Takeda, a legitimate black belt in Ryukyu Shorin-ryu Karate. Noboru Iguchi has said that he was influenced by both Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (regarding food attacking people) and the popularity of Piranha 3D in Japan. As frequent collaborators, Yoshihiro Nishimura once again helmed the special effects. Rina Takeda portrays Keiko, the daughter of a sushi shop owner. She leaves her home to stay at an inn where she is tormented by the president of Komatsu Pharmaceuticals. A scorned employee creates a serum that brings sushi to life, and Keiko must team up with a former sushi chef to fight off the creatures. There’s still that lovely B-movie gore, but Dead Sushi features solid comedic action scenes carried by Rina Takeda’s martial arts ability.
Tomie: Unlimited is the eighth entry into the lengthy Tomie series, based on Junji Ito’s disturbing manga. The film takes a more serious look at the J-Splatter sensibilities, and focuses on Junji Ito’s brilliant body horror mind. It begins as a psychological story surrounding a girl whose sister Tomie recently died in a freak accident. One day she comes back, and everyone seems to think nothing of that except her sister. Everyone becomes smitten with Tomie, but her sister knows there’s something deeply wrong. Tomie is excellently portrayed by Miu Nakamura, and the visual effects and sombre tone lead to some haunting imagery.
Finally, with yet another appearance in the genre, Noboru Iguchi works alongside Tak Sakaguchi in Mutant Girls Squad, which has Sakaguchi portraying a transvestite samurai leading a group of mutant rebels. A few big names worked together to direct this, with Iguchi, Sakaguchi, and Yoshihiro Nishimura co-directing. It feels like a Sentai X-Men – just filled with gross body parts and fountains of blood. The film starts with our main character, Rin, witnessing her mother’s head explode, then her father decapitated before his head falls into her birthday cake. This moment awakens her mutant abilities, and the ride begins.
Once you’ve watched the core films in the genre, Noboru Iguchi’s work is a perfect place to continue. His films aren’t all hits (Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead), but they’re incredibly fun, and he consistently works with all the other top names in J-Splatter. There are many more J-Splatter films that are worth a watch, and plenty more perfect for fun movie nights.