V-Splatter Cinema: Direct-to-Video Rarities from Japan’s 1980s


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddBefore Japan’s direct-to-video film industry exploded into the V-Cinema phenomenon that defined much of the 1990s, filmmakers during the 1980s were testing the limits of gore and taste with a wave of horror videos that were short on runtime but long on trauma. This collection celebrates this “V-Splatter” era with six hard-to-find classics, many of which are presented here for the first time on Blu-ray and DVD in the West.

Taking inspiration from the mini-monsters that became popular in American horror films of the 1980s, Masayoshi Sukita’s Gakidama features a reporter who is possessed by a forest spirit and spawns a gruesome little humanoid monster that torments him and his wife. Next, Akihiro Kashima’s Biotherapy combines 1950s science fiction with Italian giallo killers as a group of scientist are stalked by a murderous alien monster who hides its identity beneath a black hat and trench coat. Shigeru Izumiya’s seminal cyberpunk film Death Powder features an android hunter who finds his consciousness radically altered when he breathes in a replicant’s powdery remains. Kazuo “Gaira” Komizu’s Guzoo: The Thing Forsaken by God – Part 1 merges The Thing with the “young women in peril” slasher film to create the prototypical Japanese tentacle-horror film. In Takuro Fukuda’s Conton, a young man is harassed by gangsters and plagued by dreams of a creature hunted by monstrous knights until his dream and his reality combine. Finally, Jôji Iida’s Cyclops takes place in a world where mutants hide amongst us and where The Terminator is spiked with a violent dose of body horror.

Running just 30 to 60 minutes each, these mind-blowing, stomach-turning Japanese nasties pack a fleshy punch for horror fans and Japanophiles alike.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentations of all six films
  • Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio for all six films
  • Optional English subtitles on all six films
  • New interviews with director Masayoshi Sukita and visual effects artist Shin’ichi Wakasa, actors Hirohisa Nakata and Jun’ichi Haruta, director Shigeru Izumiya, and director Kazuo “Gaira” Komizu
  • Interview with director Jôji Iida
  • Newly filmed appreciations by critic Kat Ellinger and special effects artist Dan Martin
  • Extensive image galleries
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writings by Japanese cinema experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp

By the 1980s, declining ticket sales put the major Japanese studios on the brink of total collapse. Toho and Toei were unable to gather sufficient audiences to make profitable their big-budget films. While Shochiku relied almost entirely on its Tora-san franchise to stay afloat, the failure of Akira Tomono’s The Setting Sun sent Nikkatsu into receivership. A solution was found by Toei who took inspiration from the phenomenal home video release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) and of various successful OVAs (original video animations) to launch its direct-to-video V-Cinema label. A revolution was born with Toei’s explosive release of Toshimichi Ohkawa’s 60-minute Crime Hunter (1989) and other studios quickly launched their own imprints, though the straight-to-video revolution would bear the name of Toei’s initial label. Aimed at male audiences attracted to shorter features that valued action over exposition, V-Cinema carried these studios through the first half of the 1990s and launched the careers of daring directors like Takashi Miike and SABU who flourished in the less supervised and less censored format.

Also emerging from the V-Cinema wave were filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hideo Nakata, directors who would establish in the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s a mode of atmospheric, psychologically dreadful horror films known simply as J-Horror. J-Horror marked a turn away from the gory, violent spectacles that dominated the 1980s and which took their inspiration from slashers, early cyberpunk, and body horror. Perhaps ironically, many of these ’80s horror titles were themselves direct-to-video releases and may themselves have been progenitors to the V-Cinema movement that would change the conventions of Japanese horror. Like the action extravaganzas that typified V-Cinema, these earlier horror films could run at abbreviated feature-lengths and showcase spectacle and experimentation rather than plot and exposition. MMC! would love to see some of these gory, pre-V-Cinema horror movies get some shine, and so who better than Arrow Video to package them up much like they have done for other examples of Japanese cinema or American horror film?

Presumably following in the wake of Joe Dante’s horror-comedy Gremlins (1984) and joining the wave of nasty critter flicks that included States-side horror franchises like Ghoulies and Critters, Masayoshi Sukita’s Gakidama (1985) (aka Demon Within) follows a reporter who becomes the host of a horrid and vicious little beast. Reporter Morioka (Kyôzô Nagatsuka) accompanies his photographer colleague Kitayan (Ichirô Ogura) into a forest in hopes of getting a picture of a hitodama, a spirit that appears as a ghostly ball of greenish flame. The hitodama transforms into a worm and enters Morioka’s ear, leaving the man with an insatiable appetite, sores on his face, and a pulsating shape growing in his body. At home, a slimy ghoul emerges from Morioka, tearing its way out of his mouth to terrorize him and his wife Michiko (Kazuyo Matsui). A masked man (Yôsuke Saitô) bearing a fancy birdcage under his cloak appears and captures the ghoul but later loses the monster. He reveals to Morioka the secrets of the gakidama ghouls, namely how to cook and eat them, but while they search for their next disgusting meal, the gakidama returns to torment Michiko, destroying their home as it attacks her with its claws and its mouthful of gruesome teeth.

Gakidama boasts a surprising pedigree for a 54-minute creature feature where its demonic fiend is a diminutive, fleshy humanoid puppet with narrow eyes and ugly, pointy teeth in a lipless mouth. The movie is adapted from Baku Yumemakura’s novella by Atsushi Tamatoya, the screenwriter of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) and his own Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967). Make-up and special effects were provided by Shin’ichi Wakasa, now considered a premiere tokusatsu artist who established himself as an integral part of the Heisei and Millennium eras of the Godzilla franchise. Still, it is director Masayoshi Sukita who fascinates most. Sukita is best known as a world famous photographer working within the fashion industry and with notable rock musicians. His close relationship with David Bowie led to a 40-plus-year collaboration most noted for Sukita taking the iconic photo for Bowie’s album Heroes. He worked as a still photographer on Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) and was the cinematographer on Shuji Terayama’s iconic Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998). What would inspire a world famous photographer to make an hour long version of David Cronenberg’s Gremlins heavy with motherhood anxieties? That is a question I now desperately an enterprising movie label to answer. 

Less pedigreed is Akihiro Kashima’s Biotherapy (1986), a short film that assumes the unlikely challenge of merging 1950s-style sci-fi with the giallo slasher to create a sanguinary spectacle out of its 36 minutes. Kashima’s available filmography describes him as primarily a director and assistant-director working in television during the twenty-plus years prior to Biotherapy, while screenwriters Kazuhiro Kasai and Hiroshi Takatsu have precious few identified film credits between them. Even the short’s obviously busy make-up artist Osamu Miki seems to only have this film to his credit. Some of its cast, such as Hirohisa Nakata and Jun’ichi Haruta, became mainstays in tokusatsu franchises like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, though only Yumiko Ishikawa reappears in this collection of video releases, being cast in Kazuo “Gaira” Komizu’s Guzoo: The Thing Forsaken by God – Part 1 (1986).

Biotherapy concerns a group of rival scientists who have created “GT medicine,” a serum that causes animals to grow ten times faster than normal. Ownership of the discovery and its responsible use is a point of contention between them, however those concerns become significantly less important with the arrival of a murderous alien decked out in the black gloves, coat, hat, and mask of a giallo killer. Biotherapy proceeds as a collection gory of assaults against these scientists as its alien slasher seeks out this medical MacMuffin. The short is loaded with plenty of gruesome content – eye-gougings, tongue-tearings, face-shreddings, disembowelings, and a body impaled by test tubes to spurt blood from them like a horrible fountain – and for added effect, Biotherapy’s monster alien shimmers with iridescent, ultraviolet energy, declaring its sci-fi nature. At barely more than a half-hour, Biotherapy is not much more than a carnage delivery system but for fans of Sami Raimi-esque bloodshed and goofy nonsense, what more do you really need?

Perhaps the most renowned film in this imagined collection is Shigeru Izumiya’s Death Powder (Desu pawuda, 1986), considered by many to be any early founding work of Japanese cyberpunk. This 63-minute feature is obviously influenced by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), though some credit is likely owed to its writer, director, and co-star, Shigeru Izumiya, having been cast in Sogo Ishii’s dystopian sci-fi landmark, Burst City (1982). Izumiya is best known as a poet, folk singer, and television personality in Japan but may be more familiar to western audiences for his voice-work on Isao Takahata’s animated feature Pom Poko (1994). Accompanying Izumiya in this stylish and bizarre project is a cast of reputable film and television performers that includes Mari Natsuki, Rikako Murakami, and Kôichi Satô.

Death Powder seemingly answers an unusual question – what might Blade Runner resemble if a replicant dissolved into a powder that would spread its consciousness into a human being and then cause mental and physical transfigurations before launching into Akira-level monstrosities? In the movie, a pair of neo-noir replicant hunters named Kiyoshi and Norris (Takichi Inukai and Rikako Murakami) are sent to investigate a gang hide-out where artist Harima (Shigeru Izumiya) cares for his android love named Guernica (Mari Natsuki). Guernica deteriorates into a powder which is inhaled by an injured Kiyoshi, causing his face to become distorted and his mind invaded by the memories of Guernica. Kiyoshi discovers that Guernica was entrusted to Harima by her creator, Dr. Loo (Kiyoshirô Imawano). While engaged in a rocking electric guitar solo, the apparently mad scientist reveals to Harima that Guernica will live for only four years and that she requires human love to become human herself. From there, Harima, Norris, and Kiyoshi must defend themselves from the wheelchair-bound gangster Mr. Hacker (Tamio Kageyama) and his disfigured goons, the Scar People. Kiyoshi returns to his normal state with Guernica properly incorporated into his consciousness, and Death Powder concludes with an extensive epilogue surveying a chaos of flesh and orifices that has apparently overtaken the hide-out. Loaded with DIY dystopianism, elastic subjectivities, and quite a bit of unruly flesh, Death Powder very much feels like the connective tissue between Sogo Ishii and later filmmakers like Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui. No film in this proposed collection comes close to claiming the influence and impact of Izumiya’s Death Powder and so its release is by far the most essential of these splatterrific extravaganzas.

The most shocking aspect of this collection is that it has taken four films to finally introduce tentacles into our tour of Japanese monstrosities. Thankfully, Kazuo “Gaira” Komizu’s Guzoo: The Thing Forsaken by God – Part 1 (Guzoo: Kami ni misuterareshi mono) resolves this problem with an abundance of fleshy tendrils, so much so that it apparently removed the need for a Part 2. In Guzoo, Minako Takamura (Yumiko Ishikawa) brings her three friends – Kazuko “Kachin” Ôsawa (Kyôko Komiyama), Yuka Nagai (Naomi Kajitani), and Mayumi Kawasaki (Tomoko Maruyama) – to her professor father’s secluded summer holiday spot. With no other guests, they share the building with Tomoko Kujô (Hidemi Maruyama) who works as the inn’s manager and resident chef while also attending to her studies as an archaeology researcher. Kujô is quite secretive about her current work, with only foul smells escaping from her basement laboratory to hint at the macabre goings-on hidden within. Things get outright suspicious when the young women find their make-ups mirror all smashed and when Yuka is cut on the arm while frolicking with her friends in an outdoor pool and Kujô blames the injury on a “kamaitichi,” allegedly an invisible weasel known to cause such injuries. Kachin has a bit of the girl detective in her and she launches a full-scale investigation after Yuka is twice attacked through a kitchen mirror by some fleshy tentacles, actually pulled through the mirror during the second attack. Kachin and her friends eventually discover that Kujô hides in her basement laboratory a slimy heap of tentacled flesh capable of passing through mirrors and intent on killing the women in wriggling spectacles of bodily trauma and arterial sprays. Thankfully, this disgusting monster can be calmed with a tune played on an ocarina, a discovery that comes all too late for many of Guzoo’s female characters.

Kazuo Komizu seems best known for violent sex and gore films like Entrails of a Virgin (1986) and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman (1986). Guzoo is restrained in its sexual content, satisfied to see its four young women stalked by short shorts and low camera angles when not being brutalized by its squelching, farting horror. For many, Komizu’s film is seen as a 40-minute riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and the two films do share a closed setting, a limited number of characters, a fleshy and inhuman monster, and plenty of death erupting from within the creature’s victims. At the risk of attaching Guzoo to yet another superior film, Komizu’s movie might be imagined as The Thing if Nobuhiko Obayashi had re-made it instead of making his nightmarishly absurd House (1977). Guzoo is by no means of the calibre of either The Thing or House but it is a very enjoyable merger of Japanese weirdness and body horror grotesquerie that keeps up a rewarding pace and avoids overstaying its preposterous welcome.

Most notable for his screenwriting work on various Kamen Rider projects, Conton (Jûshin densetsu, 1987) appears to be Takuro Fukuda’s sole directing credit. The 45-minute video feature follows Goh, a college student with no family and a girlfriend named Emi. Goh skips his classes to design kaiju models and work part-time as a TV lighting technician. He is behind on his tuition payments and at risk of being expelled, though his bigger problem is with the gangsters of the Kanto Dragon Club. After rear-ending the yakuza and borrowing money from loansharks to settle with them, the trio of gangsters have bought Goh’s debt and continue to hound and threaten him for payment. Adding to the strain on Goh is a recurring dream of a horrible creature hunted through a wet, back-lit, industrial underworld by three monstrous knights. The dreams resemble an overly serious take on a GWAR performance, but their vividness leaves Goh waking up panicked and exhausted. When Goh experiences a dream within a dream where he vomits dark bile into his bathroom sink and a human face rises out of it with an Alien-like mouth attacking him, Goh questions what is dream and what is reality.

Ultimately, Conton reaches its climax with dream and reality converging. The three members of the Kanto Dragon Club arrive at Goh’s job at the studio set and his efforts to escape prove futile when they produce Emi and threaten rape her unless Goh pays his debt. Unable to bear his strain any longer, Goh transforms into the creature of his dreams, his body distorting and elongating in ways reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London and the joint-cracking horrors fashioned by Rick Baker. Conton’s concluding conflict is hardly surprising but it is grisly and affective all the same, and its final pair of twists are genuinely clever, obliterating the dream/reality division and offering in its stead an intriguing suggestion of the convivial worlds Goh occupies.

This imagined collection concludes with Jôji Iida’s Cyclops (Kikuropusu, 1987), a mash-up of The Terminator and body horror monstrosity that culminates in the single goriest conflict amongst any of these straight-to-video horror shows. Cyclops is set is a contemporary Japan where mutant babies are born due to pollution, medication, and nuclear radiation. These mutant births are typically hushed up and these offspring were allowed to perish with the exception of those experimented upon by the now deceased Doctor Keiichi Takazawa. Takazawa’s assistant, Tooru Takamori (Kazuhiro Sano), now works as an obstetrician, looking after his sister Miyuki (Mayumi Hasegawa) and keeping his pregnant wife under unusually strict bed rest at his hospital. A shady government group plots to continue Dr. Takazawa’s work and their plans require that they capture and examine Miyuki, though their towering enforcer Michio Sonezaki (Kai Âto) seems to have little interest in abducting the young woman. Immense, square-jawed, and wearing massive sunglasses, Sonezaki resembles a Japanese analogue to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, though the big man is anything but programmed to simply carry out orders. In fact, Sonezaki is keen to reveal Miyuki’s mysterious true nature to her and to wipe out all of Takamori’s research no matter what it requires of him.

Jôji Iida has worked consistently in film, television, and manga since the 1980s, predominantly as a screenwriter and director in the science fiction and horror genres. Mayumi Hasegawa has worked consistently in television, while Kazuhiro Nano has had a prolific career in pink cinema. Kai Âto, who passed away in 2015, had a lengthy career in film in television, with roles in Shun’ya Itô’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973), and Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980). To be truthful, much of Cyclops’ runtime is furniture-moving to get to its climax, lacking the periodic conflicts and kills that pace out the other films in this supposed collection. The appearance of a naked female subject for medical examination and the reveal of Sonezaki’s gruesome face hidden beneath his sunglasses notwithstanding, Cyclops is really all about its final battle between Sonezaki and Takamori in a hospital elevator. It is a live-action body horror battle for the ages impressively constructed by Kamen Rider visual effects artist Shûichi Kokumai and the prolific Yuichi Matsui (who also worked on Death Powder). The final closure of Cyclops feels rather open-ended and perhaps less satisfying as a result, but it hardly matters given how high Cyclops flies to its gooey, violent, body-rending sun.

Knowing how challenging Japanese cinema can be to bring to the West and how few examples of V-Cinema have made the leap, this proposed Arrow Video collection seems downright fanciful. Nevertheless, a German Blu-ray of Cyclops was released by Cinestrange complete with a gorgeous transfer and an array of special effects, so maybe this isn’t quite as outrageous an idea as it might seem on its mangled face. These films are fascinating in their approach to storytelling and in how they circulate and appropriate global trends in horror cinema for a niche domestic audience. Arrow Video/Third Window Films/Radiance Films, please bring us these splatter classics and open the V-Cinema floodgates bloodgates!

Credits: This post ports over the Cinestrange interview with Jôji Iida, imagines interviews with available directors, actors, and effects artists, and adds the obligatory Kat Ellinger appreciation. Japanese film scholars Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes were easy choices to provide essays given their expertise in V-Cinema, low genres, and the more daring side of this era in Japanese film.

This post owes thanks to Tom Mes’s essays “How V-Cinema sparked a Japanese filmmaking revolution,” “The V-Cinema Notebook, Part 1,” and “The V-Cinema Notebook, Part 2: The Action Paradigm.” Further, this post was informed by Annie Choi’s review of Gakidama for Bleeding SkullHayley Scanlon’s review of Death Powder at Windows on Worlds, and by Jayson Kennedy’s review of Conton at Basement of Ghoulish Decadence.

Finally, MMC! wishes everyone out there a very, very …



2 thoughts on “V-Splatter Cinema: Direct-to-Video Rarities from Japan’s 1980s

  1. moviefanman November 1, 2022 / 10:18 am

    Japanese Horror from the 80’s onward is just a little too creepy for me, but I imagine there’d be plenty of folks who’d get a kick out of them. Your choices are always really cool to see my man.

    • spinenumbered November 1, 2022 / 10:58 am

      I’d say these are more gory than creepy … if that changes anything.

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