Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Misato Hirata, Mika Ayuki, Hiroko Sakurri, Hideaki Anno
Written and directed by Tomoo Haraguchi
Distributed by Media Blasters
Tomoo Haraguchi’s Death Kappa is a movie I have been eagerly anticipating ever since it was announced late last year. Badly dubbed old school giant Japanese monster movie action with guys in rubber monster suits fighting it out with one another while smashing model buildings and contending with armies of toy tanks and fighter jets – yes, please. And if Haraguchi had actually bothered to make that movie, I might have been more entertained. Instead he made the same exact mistake as last year’s Monster X Strike Back: Attack the G8 Summit by making a tone deaf comedy that doesn’t deliver on enough of what the target audience of a film like this is looking for.
You want to see giant rubber monsters battling it out? You’ll have to wait until the last fifteen minutes, and then the fight only lasts about five minutes, and, worst, if you’ve seen the trailer online – guess what? Yep, you’ve seen almost all of the best parts from the comical monster battle in it.
Two words sum up Death Kappa: missed opportunities. I know when it comes to Japanese gonzo filmmaking they like their humor juvenile and their plots nonsensical, but Haraguchi (Kibakichi, Sakuya: Slayer of Demons) didn’t even appear to be trying when he came up with whatever it is he calls a script. An insipid kiddy movie one moment, a violent b-movie a few moments later, and finally a giant monster movie spoof: It could have worked in that berserk Japanese b-movie sort of way had there been more energy, more creativity, and fewer jokes so limp as to be too flaccid to even fall flat. I’m used to giant monster movies being really bad, but Death Kappa is really, really bad, and that badness is made worse because it was done so intentionally.
What kind of humor am I talking about? The ticket taker at a railroad station is a hunchback with a deformed face and ugly teeth. Nothing is ever made of this; nothing ever comes of this. Haraguchi just decided to have a train employee that looks like Quasimodo. We also get a transgender jet fighter pilot and a random soldier with exaggerated buck teeth before it’s all over, and like with train hunchback, there’s no set-up or punch line to the joke. A soldier crying out for “mommy” before getting killed by a giant monster wasn’t funny the first time and it wasn’t funny the fifth time. There’s good nonsense and there’s bad nonsense; Death Kappa, I’m afraid it doesn’t even rank as so bad its good nonsense.
The first 25 minutes alone might be enough to make some viewers hit the stop button and never look back. A young Japanese girl returning home to her village after failing to make it as a pop singer in Tokyo witnesses some disaffected punks callously run over her grandmother. Granny’s dying wish is for her granddaughter to protect the kappa, a legendary Japanese water goblin resembling a tubby turtle that has a thing for cucumbers and sumo wrestling. She quickly gets over her grandmother’s hit-and-run when the kappa appears and the film turns into a tediously long musical montage for preschoolers as the kappa, the girl, and some friends dance and frolic to this sickeningly sappy pop song that will probably haunt my dreams tonight. Funny for about ten seconds, not ten minutes. The gruesome fate of the teens that turned grandma into roadkill also becomes the subject of a needlessly long sequence.
When kidnappers steal the kappa and abduct the girl, finally, after 27 pointless minutes of tiresome filler, something resembling an actual plot begins to emerge; an insane plot involving Japanese nationalists scheming to take Japan back to its militaristic pre-WW2 glory by capturing kappas and using them to mutating disaffected Japanese youth into imperialistic gillmen super soldiers. It gets wackier when things head into Ninja Turtle territory with the kappa sumo wrestling the fishmen to rescue the girl.
After fifteen minutes of entertaining dementedness, every last bit of this gets tossed onto the scrap pile. In fact, the first 42 minutes of Death Kappa could have been left on the cutting room floor and it really wouldn’t have had much of any bearing on the outcome of things to follow. It became apparent to me that this brief flirtation with a plot was merely the excuse Haraguchi came up with to explain why an atomic bomb gets detonated bringing about the emergence of a giant radioactive kappa and an evil giant monster reminiscent of Godzilla’s old foe Titanosaurus. Except it doesn’t actually explain either, so why bother? Just make a 35-minute short film that gets right to the giant monster action viewers like me are tuning in for.
Yet even here Haraguchi tries hard to drop the ball. The kappa takes a powder for the next fifteen minutes while the evil Godzilla-like monster takes the spotlight. Extras flee in terror, humor involving news reporters and military officials misses their mark by a wide margin, and the director drags his feet before finally letting the toy tanks and planes actually engage the monster.
I reviewed a Japanese short film back in March titled Gehara, a pitch perfect parody of Showa era daikaiju movies that in a running time of only 20 minutes got every single aspect right that Death Kappa fumbles repeatedly over the course of 76 minutes: the rubber-suited monster, the crazy military super weapon, the deadly serious man providing the moral of the story, all the tropes of this genre lovingly and intelligently poked fun at.
Maybe the trick that the next Japanese filmmaker takes at making one of these daikaiju homages is to do it without a hint of irony or any painful stabs at puerile humor. Just make a wacky monster movie with a straight face and let the viewer be entertained by the natural silliness of it all. Isn’t that why so many of us fell in love with this genre in the first place?
The best thing on the entire disc is the trailer that makes Death Kappa look a million times more fun than it turned out to be. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the ten-minute making of since I had long stopped caring by this point. Apparently convinced the musical montage was amusing they dare include an uncut music video of it. A very brief pre-production video of American producer John Siabella makes me wonder if he was as enthusiastic after seeing the finished film as he was before it began shooting. Rounding out the DVD extras is over ten minutes of trailers for other Tokyo Shock titles that probably wouldn’t leave me as deeply frustrated as Death Kappa did.
1 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5