Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 20th 2010
Detroit Metal City
Live Action DVD
Starry-eyed country boy Soichi Negishi heads to college in Tokyo with dreams of making music in his heart. His college friends, including chaste sweetheart Yuri Aikawa, think his gooey pop ballads are the tops, and assure him that he has the chops to go pro. They're right, but not in the way they think. Upon graduation Negishi is strong-armed into fronting the Death Metal band Detroit Metal City, releasing ear-bleeding songs about rape, murder, and hatred as his violent, misogynistic alter-ego Johannes Krauser II. Negishi clings to his dreams of pop stardom, and even reunites with Aikawa, but his double life keeps getting in his way. When American heavy metal god (demon?) Jack Ill Dark comes to Japan spoiling for a fight, Negishi's struggle to reconcile his public and private lives reaches crisis. Whether he, and more importantly his dreams, can survive the crisis is an open question.
Of all the insane, outrageous things that director Toshio Li could have done with mangaka Kiminori Wakasugi's viciously funny skewering of musical pretensions, twisting it into an inspirational comedy about the power of dreams was not at the top of the list. It's like making pie out of pickles. Or perhaps glazing bile with sugar. Regardless, the result is infelicitous. Li culls the first leg of the film from the standalone jokes of the manga, which works reasonably well, but stumbles disastrously when he tries to shape the second half into a continuous dramedy about the evolution of Negishi's music-making dreams. The stumble starts when Negishi-as-Krauser saves Aikawa by throwing himself between her and a falling statue. In the original, Krauser fans would have leapt from the sidelines to misinterpret the act as a sexual assault ("look, Krauser's raping a statue and a girl!"). In the film it's a hackneyed excuse for Aikawa to discover Krauser's true identity. Not good, warns our inner cynic.
What follows, as Negishi runs to the country to mope, discovers that the dreams of metalheads are no less precious than those of pop pantywaists, and makes a Rocky-esque return to Tokyo, would (to use her own turn of phrase) make the lady President of DMC's Death Records dry up like a ninety-year-old nun. Worse, it defangs the original—which after all got its best and bitterest laughs by laying waste to the softer emotions—and leads to an awkward stitching together of humiliation-based humor and idealistic drama. The scenes of Negishi gaining courage from his dreams ring terribly false after the fun the film has savaging those same dreams, and vice-versa. A reliance on uplifting clichés, like the courage-bolstering pep-talk by Negishi's mom, doesn't help. What results isn't just less funny; it's downright conventional. The horror. By the time Krauser's battle with Jack Ill Dark runs its course the series is in such feel-good tatters that it hardly matters that the face-off itself is utterly nonsensical.
Of course, it isn't entirely fair to compare Li's live action adaptation to Wakasugi's manga, or even Studio 4°C's DMC anime. They're different mediums after all, and the film is, nominally at least, intended to stand on its own. The problem is that it doesn't. At least not very well. Part of that has to do with the aforementioned struggle between the original's mean jokes and the film's gooey message. Part of it is the usual difficulty with adapting a comic to the big screen—namely that cartoon stories, even adult ones, generally make for cartoony movies. Part of it is the lumpy plotting that comes from force-welding vignettes into a continuous narrative.
The real damage, however, is dealt by the cast. Good actors have turned many a leaden film into comedy gold. DMC has no such luck. As Aikawa, Rosa Katou is wooden enough to knock on for luck. Meanwhile Yoshihiko Hosoda and Yasuko Matsuyuki, as DMC bassist Jagi and the Death Records President respectively, go to the opposite extreme, one squirming like an intersexed snake while the other cackles like a ham-fed witch. For the most part the rest of the cast follows suit, opting for either stiff "normalcy" or caricature so broad that it can't help but be offensive.
The film is a little luckier with its male lead. Ken'ichi Matsuyama, he of the deliberately weird filmography, is similarly antic, but his mugging has such investment, such wholehearted physical commitment, that it can't help but be impressive. And amusing. There's no awkwardness or self-consciousness in his portrayal, which frees you up to enjoy the unbridled glee with which he inhabits sissy Negishi and his ubermensch alter-ego. Negishi's shamelessly girly body language is one of the film's few genuine treats—especially when Li undercranks his camera, speeding up Negishi's pigeon-toed waddle to a demonic feminine sprint. Yeah it's lowbrow, and maybe even a little homophobic, but dang is it funny.
Joining Matsuyama among the film's modest charms are a small collection of successful sight gags: Krauser in full demonic regalia, wiggling his tush to a tambourine tune in a public restroom; Krauser in full demonic regalia eating dinner with his blithe family; Krauser in full demonic regalia riding a bullet train...you get the idea. Also weighing in on the plus side are the rock cameos, with KISS front-man Gene Simmons gamely poking fun at his own theatrics as Jack Ill Dark, accompanied by 80s thrash hero (and Tokyo transplant) Marty Friedman on guitar and Steve Vai drummer Jeremy Colson on percussion. And then there are the DMC in-jokes. It isn't absolutely necessary that you recognize Krauser-tan or know why capitalist pigs get a shout-out, but it certainly helps.
Sanitizing the more outré jokes may leach the acid from Kiminori Wakasugi's rude satire, but just as it weakens the laughs so too does it weaken their attendant cringe-factor. Which, so long as you discount the film's bevy of pacing, tonal, acting and scripting problems, along with the dark stains left by the vitriol Li's rewrites couldn't erase (like the contempt the film has for feminized trendy-men), makes this basically a wisp of harmless Jekyll/Hyde fluff. Johannes Krauser II would not be pleased.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Periodically amusing rock comedy that avoids the crueler excesses of its source material; fun lead performance and funny songs.
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