Rat Race, Game of Life, fighting for survival – so many phrases associated with living have to do with competition and individualism rather than collaboration and togetherness. In a rampant capitalistic society, we’re all fighting for our own survival, but its only through socialistic means that we can actually achieve success. At least that seems to be the theory of the new ultraviolent Japanese video-game-inspired film Meatball Machine Kodoku. Inspired by Mortal Kombat tournament competitions, Meatball Machine Kodoku wonders whether the capitalist rat race turns us all into product for an overarching corporate culture.
The trailer for Meatball Machine Kodoku sells the film as a gonzo gore-filled melee of crazy non-stop violence between cyberpunk robot-mutated cyborgs. And, yes, it totally gets there eventually. But, it spends the first 40 minutes on a mundane Japanese melodrama about a sad-sack down-on-his-luck debt collector who tries to squeeze blood from a series of stones. The debt collector is beset on all sides by needy mouthes to fill, including his own, his mothers, his landlords, and his medical bills because he has cancer. To make money, he has to collect from other people in his same scenario, and those people don’t necessarily have money either. Along the way, he falls in love with a younger single mother who isn’t exactly well off. We spend 40 minutes going through this rote drama as a series of strange characters in tall hats outline a new street line through the city.
Suddenly, a giant plastic cylinder drops upon the city and a group of tiny aliens invade select citizens within the water cooler, and turn them into mutant cyborg fighting machines, each with their own special ability based on their real life obsessions. Much like capitalism turns us into tools for enriching an elite upper class, these aliens use these humans as virtual gaming devices to mindlessly fight each other in a deadly tournament to fight their way to bloody victory. As each robot defeats another robot, they collect the power from that previous enemy and use it to power up and learn new moves. The cancer in the debt collector prevents the robots from fully taking advantage of his body and he is left to fend for himself in a winner take all tournament of machine gun breasts and fountains of blood.
With a running time of 100 minutes, Meatball Machine Kotoku wears out its welcome long before it violently grinds to a halt. Other than the spectacle of watching the melodrama and the spectacle of watching manbots fighting, not much in Kotoku expands beyond its simple fighting game presence. With the exception of a sledgehammer punchline so bizarro you won’t see it coming, the remainder of the movie is straight up what it promises: robo-people fighting an escalating series of bloody gory crazy cyberpunky battles without the pesky problems of plot. Whether this is enough to sustain your attention will immensely depend on your attention span.
Yeah, because this is Japanese gonzo, this is pretty misogynistic with sexual assault (really?!) and plenty of bare breasts. The men treat women as objects and trophies, and it doesn’t have American feminist sexual politics on its mind. Instead, Meatball Machine Kotoku focuses exclusively on the specter of capitalism and the damage it does to the body and the soul, and that is only done in the most oblique manner. The metaphor is fun to think about in hindsight, but the experience, for me, is pretty grating and redundant. Your Mileage WILL Vary.