Tuesday 18 November 2014

Movie REVIEW: Mechanical Violator Hakaider

Mechanical Violator Hakaider

These days giving the bad guys the lead focus is all the rage in films, but the Kikaider franchise got there all the way back in 1995 with the movie Mechanical Violator Hakaider. Directed by Keita Amemiya of Garo fame, this film doesn't have the classic two-toned hero in sight and instead focuses on a brand new interpretation of Hakaider in a futuristic dystopian setting. Of course, no matter which version of Hakaider you're dealing with you're guaranteed death and destruction. It's not just his nature, it's in his name as well.

After being awoken in the far future by a ragtag group of treasure hunters with no memory of who he is, Hakaider travels to the nearby Jesus Town - a utopia ruled by the self-proclaimed seraphim Gurjev, his robotic servant Mikhail and an army of enforcers. After facing these enforcers head on, Hakaider meets a group of freedom fighters who reveal the extent of Gurjev's rule. Those who do not obey him have their emotions removed and left as vegetables to be remoulded as he sees fit. Hakaider's memory  begins to return thanks to a young girl named Kaoru, promising to free Jesus Town from its oppressors once and for all.

Kaoru and Hakaider in human form
Even robots can love!

On the surface Mechanical Violator Hakaider is a simple film, with a plot which could be written on something as small as a post-it note quite succinctly. Even at a fair 77 minutes the director's cut of the film feels unfortunately short, so to hear that the theatrical cut was condensed down into a mere 51 minutes really meant there wasn't a whole lot of time to get into the finer details. "Mechanical Violator" is something that describes this interpretation of Hakaider perfectly, presented as an unstoppable force that will swiftly and effectively anyone and anything that comes between him and his goal. Even in the moments where you wish the film was expanding on the horrific charade that is Jesus Town, there's nothing more satisfying than watching bullets ricochet off of Hakaider and no one is able to take him down. 

It's fair to say that Japan's overuse (and often misuse) of religious themes and overtones is met to mixed reception, so if you're someone to get easily irritated by that it might be best to give this film a miss as it really does form the basis of everything going on here. Mechanical Violator Hakaider is built around a world that plays with conceptions of good vs evil. Everything in Jesus Town's perfect order is white, while Hakaider and the rebels are predominantly dressed in black. Meanwhile Gurjev and Mikhail (who himself is named after the Archangel) present themselves as winged angels, with Hakaider in comparison practically demonic in appearance. While the black/white visuals are impressive simply working off of each other, the symbolism becomes even more interesting the the climactic battle between Hakaider and Mikhail. Here, the walls of Gurjev's inner sanctum are ripped apart to reveal the its red innards - Jesus Town is literally bleeding out as Hakaider tears it down. The fact the pieces of the wall lie on the ground like meaty chunks may be hammering the point home a bit too much, but anyone who's watched Garo will know that Amemiya isn't one to do things in half measures.

The "red room innards" scene
I would NOT want to be the one to clean that up

But much like the overall plot of Mechanical Violator, character development is sadly rather thin on the ground. Kaoru and the band of rebels are more like catalysts for Hakaider than actual characters (despite the rather touching, if fleeting, relationship between Kaoru and her black knight), while Gurjev's backgrounds and motivations are barely touched upon. It's a film where the characters' actions are going to tell you more than the actual narrative, and even then there isn't a whole lot to go off. Take Mikhail for example - on the surface he just comes across as the loyal henchmen of a crazed fanatic, but his actions are a bit more complex. This is best expressed in a scene where he almost lovingly puts a killed enforcer to rest, only to 30 seconds later brutally murder another one simply for not "giving his life in service". 

Gurjev, ruler of Jesus Town
Nothing says "crazed despot" like a angelic Japanese pretty boy

Of course Hakaider's uber retro design would never work in a 90s movie, let alone one directed by the tokusatsu visual master that is Keita Amemiya. His upgrade for this movie takes him take on a far more bulky appearance - his baggy suit replaced by sculpted armour. The exposed brain is gone, replaced by a jet black dome that glows with a brain pattern every so often. Finally the slitted demonic grin is also changed, replaced with an angry grimace that perhaps better reflects the unstoppable force of destruction that is Amemiya's Hakaider. Personally it isn't my favourite design for the character, but in no way looks out of place in the film's apocalyptic world. My biggest gripe is the loss the exposed brain, as I consider it a staple part of Hakaider as it's evidence that he isn't fully robotic. That element is lost in Mechanical Violator, and despite showing a more human side to the character you're left wondering if this Hakaider is all machine. 

The hand of God

Thanks to Hakaider's added bulk, the action is also quite a different beast to the character's previous appearances. Kikaider is a character more reliant on physical fighting skills than flashy attacks, and despite Hakaider having a gun his fighting style is relatively similar. But this is a Hakaider who's more likely to stand around taking hits before ending the fight with a well-timed punch or shot to the face. On paper it sounds boring but it really works, especially how the sluggish, heavy movements of Hakaider vs Mikhail make it feel like a proper clash of mechanical titans. There's also the case of Hakaider's brand new shotgun, which really has to be seen to be believed. That weapon is over the top craziness at its very finest.

Oh, and how I said earlier Kikaider didn't make an appearance in this film? That was a lie...kind of.  There are certainly allusions to Hakaider's eternal foe in this film, but not quite in the way you'd expect. It's a little Easter egg that plays up Jesus Town's twisted little world even more.

Kikaider like you've never seen him before
Switch on? D:

Mechanical Violator Hakaider is an odd beast. The character work is thin on the ground and the story is more about symbology than it is depth, but as the credits roll you can't help feel that the "less is more" approach was exactly what they were going for here. The blatant religious overtones and iconography can be dissected and debated until the end of time, but equally it's just an incredibly fun film thats just about Hakaider tearing the world around him down. And in that aspect it definitely succeeds without question. It just goes to show how endearing a character Hakaider is, no matter who it is playing him, who it is writing him or whatever wacky setting he's been plunged into this time.