“A new type of girls movie, with tears and laughter!”, announces the trailer, which then promptly goes on to boast 70,000 Youtube viewings for the original teaser.
You see, Noboru Iguchi has been afforded quite a luxury; his movies don’t require obscene amounts of money pumped into their advertising campaigns – The Machine Girl having earned him instant cult status amongst internet crowds, and with it the assumption that everything he touches must subsequently turn to gold. That doesn’t guarantee huge box-office success, however, as back home they tend to receive very limited theatrical runs and live or die by their DVD sales. Western Asian cinema fans have certainly taken quite a shine to the works of both he and his visual effects partner Yoshihiro Nishimura over the past couple of years, and time will only tell just how long they’ll continue to ride the bloody wave of success.
Robo-Geisha tells the story of orphaned sisters Yoshie (Aya Kiguchi) and Kikue (Hitomi Hasebe). Kikue is in the throws of Maiko training, while her younger sister and general dogsbody can only dream of attaining such a rank. Day in and day out Yoshie is bullied by her sister, until one day a client of Kikue’s takes a shine to her. He just so happens to be Hikaru Kageno (Takumi Saitoh), who with his father (Taro Shigaki), runs super military weapons manufacturer ‘Kageno Steel’.
Whisking the pair away to a big ol’ castle, it is soon revealed that Kageno Steel has been hatching a dastardly plot to kidnap young trainee Geishas, weaponizing their bodies and brainwashing them into becoming the ultimate assassins. In the eyes of Hikaru, Yoshie shows the most potential, but she’s soon forced to make a difficult decision; one which will affect her better moral judgement and forever change her life.
Robo-geisha enjoys a distinctly snazzier appearance over that of its elder sister; shot in lush Hi-definition and bursting with colour and exaggerated performances, one can’t help but be reminded of the many manga-like J-Dramas currently doing the rounds. In fact the story itself is so befitting of any number of Japanese social melodramas that in some respects Iguchi’s script could be touted as lazy. However, like The Machine Girl, his film appears to have an intent of lampooning the conventions readily associated within the genre. At the heart of Robo-geisha therein lies a simple tale of a sibling rivalry, replete with an excess of overripe sentiments through which an epic struggle between two girls seeking acceptance unfolds. Much of the feature’s first half deals with domestic violence and unspoken affection in the run up to our protagonist’s transformation; Yoshie is a rather doughy-eyed figure, dressed down so as not to greatly reveal her all-too-evident beauty and portrayed thusly as the caring underdog of the piece, while her elder sister stands as the epitome of superficiality and selfishness.
The contrasting personalities of the two girls makes for an interesting dynamic set against the backdrop of a Geisha house and thanks to a few bouts of role-reversing Iguchi manages to bypass some otherwise predictable routes, even if it does happen to offset the pacing somewhat. The director also finds a moment to take a stab at mass corporate consumption, with his antagonistic suits vying for world domination, while the little people suffer by its hands. Enter an elderly band of disgruntled parental figures – led by a sorely wasted Naoto Takenaka – and the battle between two generations isn’t entirely without relevancy when we begin to see the communication barriers between families and foes take rise. However, any intended satire this time around lacks the necessary bite, with many of the gags that creep in amidst some lengthy dialogue failing to even raise a smirk, thus inevitability setting an uneven tone for a film of such mixed emotions.
Lifting it out of the doldrums and combating such genre conventions is the overblown CG aesthetics, which, like The Machine Girl, aren’t so much jaw-dropping in their technical prowess as they are absurd and vividly imaginative. As the feature hits its stride midway, Iguchi aggressively culls from obvious sources and allows his work to open up and take on a new lease of life. Yes the Robocop references are here, right down to a homage of the film’s central theme tune, while nods to Kaiju cinema are as hokey as to be expected. The blood-letting is mild, with many practical effects sidelined in favour of animated sprays, overall giving effects guru Yoshihiro Nishimura – who even makes a spirited cameo appearance – few chances to leave a mark. Up-skirt shots, some interesting prosthetic gags – including yet more death-by-food obsessions – and an assortment of weapons strategically placed in various orifices sees Iguchi and Nishimura as the men-children they obviously are: hopelessly immature but uncompromising in their own personal amusement nonetheless.
And, as with the gentlemen’s previous features, Robo-Geisha is not only filled with familiar supporting faces, but also places stars from the adult entertainment world at its forefront. Iguchi, who originally carved a career out of producing AV features, casts Gravure idol Aya Kiguchi in the starring role, alongside a devilishly fun Hitomi Hasebe, with what looks to be Hasebe’s swan song, given her recent announcement that she’s to quit the industry. AV Idol Asami Sugiura and Cay Izumi (head of Gothic-Lolita pole-dancing troupe ‘Tokyo Delores’) make up the curious duo of the Tengun sisters, which certainly leaves no shortage of curves and jiggles to get us through some of the lesser moments.
Give him his dues, Noboru Iguchi’s Robo-geisha is an often visual treat, but a compromised one at that, eschewing much of the rampant gore that its predecessor lapped up, all at the behest of a studio this time hoping to appeal to the pre-teen market and above. Don’t let the UK 18 certificate fool you too much; while the skimpy outfits, lactating acid breasts and occasional CG blood-letting might leave cause for concern – even for its own country, more often tolerant of fantasy violence – this is ultimately a light affair, offering little by way of innovation in comparison to the film which made Iguchi’s name.