Mild-mannered metal worker Yoji (Issei Takahashi) has a crush on girl next door Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), but is so painfully shy he can’t talk to her and sits at home masturbating instead. A friend tries to cheer him up with a visit to a local brothel, but Yoji is far too embarrassed to get it on with a prostitute, while his trip to a porno theatre ends with him groped by a randy transvestite, who turns nasty when rebuffed. All of which is rather heartrending in a seedy sort of way. Shortly thereafter, Yoji chances upon an alien bio-mechanical object that falls from the sky and intervenes when co-worker Tanaka (Toru Tezuka) tries to molest Sachiko.
Badly beaten for his trouble, he takes Sachiko home but his romantic advances falter when she reveals scars borne from years of parental abuse. Whereupon, triggered by her “negative thoughts”, an alien parasite erupts from its shell and attacks. Yoji watches powerlessly as the parasite rapes Sachiko, drills out her eyeballs and transforms her into a hideous mecha-mutant that goes on a kill-crazy rampage across the city. An eccentric alien hunter, whose part-infected daughter eats the creatures in order to survive, informs Yoji the aliens are drawn to the psychologically traumatised and vulnerable. He wryly observes they use human vessels like machines and seemingly exist only to each other. When the host body is consumed, they move on to another.
He then infects Yoji with another parasite, but our hero miraculously fights back, rips the shrieking beastie from his body and transforms into a bio-mechanical warrior. After accidentally killing an innocent little girl, monster-Yoji battles monster-Sachiko with Tanaka pummelled into hamburger meat in the crossfire. An ironic coda - which essentially involves two glove puppets talking to each other - reverses the tragic finale into something altogether more flip and depressing.
Expanded from a 1999 short film by co-director Junichi Yamamoto, Meatball Machine gives top-billing to special effects supervisor Yoshihiro Nishimura, director of the superior Tokyo Gore Police (2008), and creature designer Keita Amemiya - a major figure in Japanese fantasy film and television as writer, conceptual artist and film director. Which gives you some idea about the target audience. Like Tokyo Gore Police, The Machine Girl (2008), and co-director Yudai Yamaguchi’s outrageous Battlefield Baseball (2003), this is part of the new breed of Japanese “body horror” movies, high on splatter but often lacking the thought-provoking edge found in their influences: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and the collective works of David Cronenberg and Shinya Tsukamoto.
Despite looking like a shot-on-video cheapie, comic book angles and sharp editing give it a slick sheen, plus the rubber monster and gore effects are top-notch. Occasional bouts of bish-bosh action evoke memories of Amemiya’s old superhero shows, albeit set amidst a trendily grungy, fetid dystopia. Quite dull for the most part, with a premise barely more substantial than that of a videogame, after a while the rampant misogyny and ridiculously passive hero start to grate. Like so many Japanese sci-fi heroes following Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Yoji is tortured by his own passivity and a need to feel something, anything. Films like Meatball Machine have become the J-horror equivalent of all those third-rate grunge rock wannabes that followed Kurt Cobain. And just like those imitators, there is something whiny and infantile about their taboo-busting nihilism. Too flimsy to be profound, too downbeat to be as much crazy fun as Tokyo Gore Police or The Machine Girl.